Stung (2015)

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Stung

D: Benni Diez / 87m

Cast: Matt O’Leary, Jessica Cook, Clifton Collins Jr, Lance Henriksen, Eve Slatner, Cecilia Pillado

Caterers Julia (Cook) and Paul (O’Leary) have been booked for a birthday celebration for Mrs Perch (Slatner) at her house in the country. It’s make or break for the business, and Julia, who’s taken over since her father’s recent death, is particularly on edge and wanting to make a good impression. When they arrive and get set up, everything seems to be going in their favour, although Paul finds himself bothered by a bigger than average wasp. When the guests have arrived and the party is in full swing, the fun turns to horror as a swarm of these swaps erupts from a hole in the ground and begins attacking the guests. To make matters worse, these wasps don’t just sting their victims – they use them as cocoons from which they emerge even bigger and more powerful.

Fighting their way through the panic, Paul and Julia, along with Mrs Perch, her hunchbacked son Sydney (Collins Jr), their maid Flora (Pillado), and the local mayor (Henriksen), make into the house where they hide in the kitchen. But Mrs Perch has already been stung, and soon transforms into a giant wasp. The rest escape but in doing so, Flora is killed, leaving the remaining foursome to barricade themselves in the cellar. Deciding that their only real hope of escape is for someone to get to their catering van and bring it nearer to the house, Paul leaves the basement and retrieves the keys he dropped earlier. While he does, it soon becomes clear that Sydney has been stung as well. As he begins to change, a wasp’s head emerges from his hunch. Paul runs back when he hears Julia and the mayor cry out in fear. He knocks out Sydney and the three of them try and make their escape through the house. But when the mayor is attacked by one of the wasps, Julia and Paul have no option but to find their own way out.

Eventually they get outside and head for their van but are attacked by the biggest wasp yet. It impales Paul through his left shoulder and though Julia manages to sever the wasp’s limb it knocks her unconscious. When she comes to, the first thing she becomes aware of is Paul’s screams, which are coming from the house…

Stung - scene

A German-made movie with all the hallmarks of a low-budget horror sensibility where the concept is key, Stung is another entry in the nature gone wild sub-genre that harks back to the days of Them! (1954) and Tarantula (1955). Skipping any reason for the wasps’ behaviour (or origin), the movie sets out its stall quite early on with its wasp attack on a bee: clearly, something bad is going to happen if this is anything to go by. With the characters of Paul (carefree, rule-bending), Julia (determined, anxious), and Sydney (creepy, unreliable) firmly established, the party gets under way and Adam Aresty’s script gets on with the gleeful task of slaughtering a raft of minor characters before settling down to a game of wasp and mouse in the house, with Henriksen’s macho cliché-spouting mayor coming into his own (and stealing the movie).

From here the movie loses some of its momentum, reducing the number of wasps that appear, and concentrating on Paul and Julia’s burgeoning romance, an example of character building that thankfully doesn’t feel forced, thanks to the script and the playing of O’Leary and Cook. But once Paul is injured, the movie picks up the pace and heads for a bravura finale that features a chase sequence that definitely hasn’t been seen before. And with a coda that sets up a potential sequel, as well as providing the movie’s best sight gag, Stung ends on an unexpected, satisfying high.

But while the movie is entertaining enough, and its splatter effects convincingly gloopy, there’s a budgetary struggle that it never quite overcomes. With so many wasps erupting from the ground, and so many guests to feed on, their dwindling numbers from then on (replaced by an Aliens-style mother for the most part), actually serves to reduce the tension. While outside, Paul is only attacked by one wasp when there should be dozens more at least. Inside the house it appears there’s only one or two of the creatures prowling around, and one of those is quite easily despatched. And the final twenty minutes, with Paul trapped in the house with “Mother”, jettisons the whole idea of the wasps attacking people to grow larger, and settles instead for a queen wasp pumping out larvae that then have to be ingested. It’s an unsettling development, in the sense that the movie now feels like an insect version of James Cameron’s classic.

That this doesn’t spoil the movie entirely is down to Aresty’s tart script and Diez’s straightforward direction. This isn’t a movie with very many frills, and it’s all the better for it, telling its story with a degree of modesty and style that blunts any concerns the viewer may have about its content or how absurd it may be (of course it’s absurd – it’s a giant killer wasp movie!). There’s humour there as well, carefully included but not allowed to take away from the seriousness of the situation, and as mentioned before, the characters are credibly written considering what they’re going through (and no one behaves like a self-serving coward). Thanks to all the care and attention given to the material throughout, Stung can be taken for exactly what it is: a low-budget horror movie that’s entertaining on its own terms, and well worth seeking out.

Rating: 7/10 – some narrative concerns midway through shouldn’t detract from the fact that Stung hits just the right note in mixing strong drama, horror and an acceptable level of humour; maybe not the midnight classic it was aiming for but still a better than average killer insect movie – and how many similar movies can you say that about?

Uh-Oh! Here Comes Summer! Jurassic World (2015) and Terminator Genisys (2015)

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The third and fourth sequels in their respective franchises, Jurassic World and Terminator Genisys are that rare combination: reboots that feed off the original movies. And you could argue that they’re also remakes, in that they take the basic plots of those original movies and put their own – hopefully – nifty spins on them. But while there’s a definite fan base for both series, which means both movies should do well at the box office (enough to generate further sequels), is there enough “new stuff” in these movies to actually warrant seeing them in the first place, or getting excited about any future releases that are in the pipeline? (And let me say just now, that both movies have ensured that the possibility of further entries in both franchises will be an absolute certainty.)

Jurassic World

Jurassic World (2015) / D: Colin Trevorrow / 124m

Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Irrfan Khan, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Jake Johnson, Omar Sy, BD Wong, Judy Greer, Lauren Lapkus

Twenty-two years on from the disastrous attempt by John Hammond to open the world’s first dinosaur theme park, his dream has become a paying reality, but one that needs ever more impressive dinosaurs to keep visitors coming. Thanks to the backing of the park’s owner, Masrani (Khan), and the scientists responsible for cloning the park’s main attractions – led by Dr Henry Wu (Wong) – each new attraction strays further and further from the original concept of replicating the dinosaurs everyone is aware of. Now, Wu and his team have designed a new dinosaur, the so-called Indominus Rex, an intelligent, über-predator that is taller than a T. Rex and even more deadly.

When animal behavioural specialist Owen Grady (Pratt) is called in to assess the new dinosaur’s readiness for being shown to the public, he and park manager Claire (Howard) are unprepared for just how intelligent the Indominus Rex is; soon it escapes and begins to wreak havoc across the island. With an evacuation of over twenty thousand tourists going ahead, including Claire’s nephews Gray (Simpkins) and Zach (Robinson) who have strayed off the normal tourist track, Grady and Claire must try to keep everyone safe, as well as dealing with parent company InGen’s local representative, Hoskins (D’Onofrio), who sees Indominus Rex’s escape as a chance to prove that raptors – who have been trained by Grady – can be used as militarised weapons. But his strategy backfires, leaving everyone at risk from Indominus Rex and the raptors.

Jurassic World - scene

Given that Jurassic Park III (2001) was pretty much dismissed as so much dino guano on its release, the idea of making a fourth movie always seemed like a triumph of optimism over experience. And yet, Jurassic World is a triumph – albeit a small scale one – and while it doesn’t offer us anything really new (aside from Grady’s instinctive, respect-driven relationship with the raptors), it does make a lot of things feel fresher than they have any right to be. This is essentially a retread of the first movie, with Gray and Zach as our guides to the park’s wonders (and perils), the fiercest dinosaur in the park getting loose, and the humans relying on other dinosaurs to take down the big bad and save the day. It’s not a bad concept – after all, it worked the first time around – but despite how well the movie has been put together, it’s still a fun ride that just misses out on providing that much needed wow factor.

Part of the problem is that the movie makers have taken the bits of Jurassic Park (1993) that worked and added some stuff that doesn’t. Do we really need to see yet another misogynistic portrayal of a relationship, where the woman changes for the man and not the other way round? Do we really need to hear a scientist blame the moneyman for not paying attention when the scientist created something unethical? And do we really need to hear deathless lines such as “We have an asset out of containment” or “It can camouflage!” (a trick the Indominus Rex pulls off just the once, by the way, when it’s convenient to the narrative). Of course we don’t, but because this isn’t a straight remake, but a reboot/update/witting homage, that’s what we get. For all that the movie is technically well made, and looks fantastic in IMAX 3D, it’s still a retread, and lacks the thrills we need to invest in it properly (and that’s without the paper-thin characters, from the stereotypically neanderthal Hoskins, to the annoying dweeb in the park’s Control Centre (Johnson). In short, the movie lacks the depth necessary to make us care about it, and without that depth, it just becomes another superficial ride the viewer will forget without realising it.

Rating: 6/10 – another summer blockbuster that doesn’t do enough to justify its budget or hype, Jurassic World is like an old friend regaling you with a story you’ve heard a thousand times before; maybe this will work better as the intro to a bigger story and plot, but if not, then this is just another disappointing entry in that ever growing cache of movies known as the Unnecessary Sequel.

Terminator Genisys

Terminator Genisys (2015) / D: Alan Taylor / 126m

Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, J.K. Simmons, Dayo Okeniyi, Matt Smith, Courtney B. Vance, Byung-hun Lee, Michael Gladis, Sandrine Holt

In 2029, the human resistance, led by John Connor (Clarke), is on the verge of defeating Skynet and its machines. But it also needs to destroy Skynet’s last chance of avoiding defeat: a time displacement machine. When John reaches the site, though, he learns that Skynet has sent a terminator back to 1984 in order to kill his mother, Sarah Connor (Clarke); with her dead, John won’t be born and won’t be able to lead the resistance to victory. Knowing his past and what needs to be done, he agrees to let Kyle Reese (Courtney) travel back as well and keep Sarah safe. As the machine begins to work, though, Kyle sees John being attacked by a terminator.

When Kyle arrives in 1984 he finds himself being hunted by a T-1000 (Lee) before being rescued by Sarah – and a T-800 (Schwarzenegger). Sarah tells Kyle that the T-800 was sent to protect her when she was nine years old, but that she doesn’t know who sent it. With the T-1000 in constant pursuit, the trio do their best to work out why this timeline is now so different from the one that John has always known. Kyle is sure that it has something to with visions he’s been having of a future that hasn’t been destroyed by Skynet, a future that will still exist in 2017, the year that Skynet – in this timeline – launches the nuclear missiles that will seal Man’s fate. He persuades Sarah to travel with him to 2017 using a time displacement machine that she has built with the T-800’s aid.

However, their arrival in 2017 leads to their being arrested. But at the police station, an even greater surprise awaits them: the arrival of John…

Terminator Genisys - scene

As Arnold Schwarzenegger has said all along, “I’ll be back”, and here he is, older, greyer, slower, with a few motor skills issues, but as he also says, “not obsolete”. It’s a clever distinction that says as much about the actor as it does the character of the T-800, giving us an aging Terminator and providing a perfectly acceptable reason for the Austrian Oak to be involved. But while he’s the star of the show, it’s also noticeable that he’s sidelined a lot of the time, giving both Clarkes, and Courtney, the chance to carry the movie in their iconic star’s absence. That they don’t is down to a script that, as with Jurassic World, wants to be as much as a retread of its progenitor as it does an entirely new instalment. As a result, the need to include what might be generously termed “fan moments” – “Come with me if you want to live” – often means a narrative that struggles to find its own identity.

There’s the germ of a great idea here, predicated on the series’ idea that “the future isn’t set”, but its revisionist version of 1984, complete with Schwarzenegger taking on his younger self (one of the movie’s better ideas), devolves into an extended chase sequence that rehashes elements from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), and acts as a kind of Terminator Greatest Hits. It’s all effectively staged by director Alan Taylor, but the sense of déjà vu persists throughout, making the screenwriters’ efforts to give us something new all the more disappointing. Even moving the action to 2017 is less than inspiring, not even allowing for a change of scenery or approach, but canny enough to include J.K. Simmons’ light relief, and change the thrilling truck chase from T2 to an unexciting helicopter pursuit. As with the trip to Isla Nubar, it’s all very professionally done, but with that one all-important ingredient still missing: something to make the viewer go “wow”.

Rating: 6/10 – as fourth sequels go, Terminator Genisys is a vast improvement on the last two instalments but remains very much a missed opportunity; with the way open for another sequel it’s to be hoped that it’ll be more original than this, and will take the kind of risks that the first movie made in order to be successful.

Monthly Roundup – June 2015

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This month, the roundup is bigger than usual thanks to spending three weeks in sunny France, in an area where the Internet was an occasional luxury rather than a constant presence. But in between drinking copious amounts of beer and wine, and sampling far too much cheese and local bread, there was quite a bit of movie watching going on. These are the movies I watched in a gite in the middle of the gorgeous Brittany countryside, almost all of them a reminder that when life is this good you can forgive quite a bit…

The Posthuman Project (2014) / D: Kyle Roberts / 93m

Cast: Kyle Whalen, Collin Place, Josh Bonzie, Lindsay Sawyer, Alexandra Harris, Jason Leyva, Rett Terrell, Will Schwab

Rating: 5/10 – a group of teens develop super powers thanks to a device created by the dastardly uncle of one of them, and must thwart his plan to use it for immoral profit; pretty much a low-budget, amateur version of The Fantastic Four, The Posthuman Project relies on its not inconsiderable charm to help the viewer get past its rough edges, but the acting and the dialogue leave an awful lot to be desired, sometimes too much so.

Posthuman Project, The

Predator: Dark Ages (2015) / D: James Bushe / 27m

Cast: Adrian Bouchet, Amed Hashimi, Sabine Crossen, Ben Loyd-Holmes, Jon Campling, Joe Egan, Philip Lane, Bryan Hands

Rating: 7/10 – a group of mercenaries led by Thomas (Bouchard) set off to hunt the mysterious creature killing people and animals in a nearby forest – and find something even more deadly than they expected; a fan-made short that adds a novel twist to the Predator saga, Predator: Dark Ages is a welcome distraction that confirms that, sometimes, the big studios don’t always have the right idea when it comes to their franchise characters.

Predator Dark Ages

Drunk Wedding (2015) / D: Nick Weiss / 81m

Cast: Christian Cooke, Victoria Gold, Dan Gill, Anne Gregory, J.R. Ramirez, Nick P. Ross, Genevieve Jones, Diana Newton

Rating: 4/10 – when a couple decide to get married in Nicaragua, they and some of their friends are given hand-held cameras to film it all… with predictably awful, drunken, outrageous, and potentially life-altering effects; if your idea of comedy is seeing someone urinating on another person’s back, then Drunk Wedding is the movie for you, and despite its lowbrow modern day National Lampoon-style approach it still manages to hold the attention and is surprisingly enjoyable – if you don’t expect too much.

Drunk Wedding

Zombie Ass: The Toilet of the Dead (2011) / D: Noboru Iguchi / 85m

Original title: Zonbi asu

Cast: Arisa Nakamura, Mayu Sugano, Asana Mamoru, Yûki, Danny, Kentaro Kishi, Demo Tanaka

Rating: 5/10 – while on a trip to the woods, Megumi (Nakamura) and four older friends find themselves under attack from zombies who have emerged from the bowels of an outhouse – and only her martial arts skills can save them; a wild, wild ride from one of the masters of Japanese Shock Cinema, Zombie Ass: The Toilet of the Dead is equal parts raw, uncompromising, witless, and gross, but it’s also a movie that just can’t be taken at all seriously, and on that level it succeeds tremendously, providing enough WtF? moments to make it all worthwhile.

Zombie Ass

Faults (2014) / D: Riley Stearns / 89m

Cast: Leland Orser, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Chris Ellis, Beth Grant, Jon Gries, Lance Reddick

Rating: 8/10 – down on his luck cult expert Ansel (Orser) sees a way out of debt and a chance to regain some self-respect when a couple (Ellis, Grant) ask him to abduct and de-programme their daughter (Winstead), but he soon finds himself out of his depth and facing up to some hard truths; a tour-de-force from the always excellent Orser – and with a solid supporting performance from Winstead – Faults is an unnerving look at a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and the ways in which his broken life have led him to a motel room where his own personal beliefs come under as much scrutiny as his captive’s.

(l-r) Leland Orser and Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars in FAULTS. ©Snoot Entertainment. CR: Jack Zeman.

She’s Funny That Way (2014) / D: Peter Bogdanovich / 93m

Cast: Imogen Poots, Owen Wilson, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Aniston, Will Forte, Kathryn Hahn, Illeana Douglas, Debi Mazar, Cybill Shepherd, Richard Lewis, Ahna O’Reilly, Joanna Lumley

Rating: 6/10 – theatre director Arnold Albertson has a secret: he gives prostitutes money in order that they can set up their own businesses, but when his latest “project”, aspiring actress Isabella Patterson (Poots) lands the starring role in his latest production, it all leads to the kind of deception and duplicity that will test the notion that the show must go on; a modern attempt at a screwball comedy, She’s Funny That Way doesn’t have the sheer energy that made movies such as His Girl Friday (1940) or  Bringing Up Baby (1938) so enjoyable, but Bogdanovich knows his stuff and keeps the movie entertaining for the most part, even if it doesn’t stay in the memory for too long afterwards.

She's Funny That Way

Curse of the Witching Tree (2015) / D: James Crow / 102m

Cast: Sarah Rose Denton, Lucy Clarvis, Lawrence Weller, Jon Campling, Caroline Boulton, Danielle Bux

Rating: 2/10 – divorcée Amber Thorson (Denton) moves into an old house with her two children (Clarvis, Weller) only for strange phenomena to start happening that’s connected to a witch’s curse, and which leaves them all at risk of supernatural forces; woeful in the extreme, Curse of the Witching Tree is amateurish nonsense that is badly directed, poorly acted, contains defiantly stilted dialogue, suffers from below-par photography, is tension-free throughout, and stands as an object lesson in how not to make a low-budget British horror movie.

Curse of the Witching Tree

Bulldog Drummond Comes Back (1937) / D: Louis King / 64m

Cast: John Barrymore, John Howard, Louise Campbell, Reginald Denny, E.E. Clive, J. Carrol Naish, Helen Freeman

Rating: 5/10 – when dastardly villains Mikhail Valdin (Naish) and Irena Saldanis (Freeman) kidnap Phyllis Clavering (Campbell), the girlfriend of Captain Hugh Drummond (Howard), they send him on a merry chase where each clue he finds leads to another clue as to her whereabouts – but no nearer to finding her; the first of seven movies with Howard as the dashing sleuth created by H.C. “Sapper” McNeile, Bulldog Drummond Comes Back is as cheap and cheerful and antiquatedly entertaining as you might expect, and benefits enormously from a cast and crew who know exactly what they’re doing.

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Every Secret Thing (2014) / D: Amy Berg / 93m

Cast: Diane Lane, Elizabeth Banks, Dakota Fanning, Danielle Macdonald, Nate Parker, Common

Rating: 7/10 – several years after two young girls are incarcerated for the murder of a younger child, their return to their hometown is marred by the disappearance of a little girl, and the belief that one or both of them is responsible; a stilted attempt at an indie film noir, Every Secret Thing features good performances – particularly from Macdonald – and focuses on the emotional effects a child abduction can have on everyone involved, but it never develops a sense of urgency, though its key revelation at the end carries a wallop that helps dismiss what will seem like a narrative impasse up until then.

Every Secret Thing

Children of the Corn: Genesis (2011) / D: Joel Soisson / 80m

Cast: Kelen Coleman, Tim Rock, Billy Drago, Barbara Nedeljakova

Rating: 3/10 – a couple (Coleman, Rock) break down on a desert highway but manage to find shelter overnight with a old preacher (Drago) and his much younger, foreign bride (Nedeljakova), but soon find that what’s in the preacher’s barn is much more menacing than the old man himself; placing the action largely away from Gatlin, Nebraska may have seemed like a smart move but this tired, dreary, and just downright dull entry in the franchise shows just how bad things have gotten since the 1984 original, and just why Children of the Corn: Genesis should remain the last in the series to be made.

Children of the Corn Genesis

Skin Trade (2014) / D: Ekachai Uekrongtham / 96m

aka Battle Heat

Cast: Dolph Lundgren, Tony Jaa, Michael Jai White, Ron Perlman, Celina Jade, Peter Weller

Rating: 6/10 – when cop Nick Cassidy (Lundgren) is powerless to stop his wife and daughter being killed, he determines to go after the crime boss responsible, Viktor (Perlman), and destroy his human trafficking network, which means travelling to Thailand and teaming up with detective Tony Vitayakul (Jaa), who’s also out to put a stop to Viktor’s illegal behaviour; with its human trafficking backdrop giving it an unexpected depth, Skin Trade is not just a brainless, slam-bang action movie, but instead a very well-made (for its budget) revenge flick that features some great fight scenes – particularly one between Lundgren and Jaa – and uses its Thai locations to very good effect.

Skin Trade

The Reconstruction of William Zero (2014) / D: Dan Bush / 98m

Cast: Conal Byrne, Amy Seimetz, Scott Poythress, Lake Roberts, Melissa McBride, Tim Habeger

Rating: 6/10 – when the brother (Byrne) of a scientist (also Byrne) wakes from a coma, it’s not long before he begins to suspect that this identity may not be that of the scientist’s brother, and that he’s a pawn in a much bigger conspiracy, but the truth proves even stranger and more disturbing than he realised; a spare, almost antiseptic movie about notions of identity and individual consciousness, The Reconstruction of William Zero features terrific performances from Byrne, but lacks consistency of pace and sometimes feels as if Bush has taken his eye off the ball and taken a while to find it again, which leaves the movie often feeling flat and lifeless.

Reconstruction of William Zero, The

Not Another Teen Movie (2001) / D: Joel Gallen / 89m

aka Sex Academy

Cast: Chyler Leigh, Chris Evans, Jaime Pressly, Eric Christian Olsen, Randy Quaid, Mia Kirshner, Deon Richmond, Ed Lauter, Paul Gleason, Mr T, Molly Ringwald

Rating: 5/10 – at John Hughes High School, popular jock Jake Wyler (Evans) accepts a bet that he can’t take an ugly girl and transform her into the prom queen, but when he picks out Janey Briggs (Leigh), and begins to spend time with her, it makes him begin to question whether he should have made the bet in the first place; a predictably irreverent teen movie that parodies all those dreadful teen comedies from the Eighties, Not Another Teen Movie has more heart than most, and thanks to Mike Bender’s script contributions, is also quite funny in its knowing way, and gives viewers a chance to see the future Captain America back in the day when his skill as an actor wasn’t quite as honed as it is now.

Not Another Teen Movie

Bloomington (2010) / D: Fernanda Cardoso / 83m

Cast: Allison McAtee, Sarah Stouffer, Katherine Ann McGregor, Ray Zupp, J. Blakemore, Erika Heidewald

Rating: 7/10 – former child actress Jackie (Stouffer) attends Bloomington college, and finds herself having an affair with one of the professors, Catherine (McAtee), until the offer of a comeback threatens to end their relationship before it’s fully begun; an intelligent, finely crafted romantic drama, Bloomington has two great central performances, and an emotional honesty that is only undermined by the clichéd nature of Jackie’s need to return to acting, and Cardoso’s over-reliance on silent longing as a sign of emotional upheaval.

Bloomington

Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers (1988) / D: Michael A. Simpson / 80m

Cast: Pamela Springsteen, Renée Estevez, Tony Higgins, Valerie Hartman, Brian Patrick Clarke, Walter Gotell

Rating: 5/10 – Angela Baker (Springsteen), having decimated most of the staff and children at Camp Arawak, and now judged to be safe around others, begins sending unruly teenagers “home” from Camp Rolling Hills – which in reality means killing them for any and all perceived infractions that Angela takes a dislike to; a much better sequel than expected, Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers gets by on Springsteen’s preppy performance, some not-too-gory deaths, and Simpson’s confident touch behind the camera, as well as that dreadful musical interlude: The Happy Camper Song.

Sleepaway Camp 2

Gunsmoke in Tucson (1958) / D: Thomas Carr / 80m

Cast: Mark Stevens, Forrest Tucker, Gale Robbins, Vaughn Taylor, John Ward, Kevin Hagen, William Henry, Richard Reeves, John Cliff, Gail Kobe

Rating: 6/10 – brothers Jedediah (Stevens) and John (Tucker) are on opposite sides of the law, but when Jedediah becomes involved in a land dispute between cattle ranchers and farmers, his sense of right and wrong is put to the test, and he has to choose sides in the upcoming fight for the choicest plot of land; a robust, earnest Western, Gunsmoke in Tucson is a staid, respectable movie that doesn’t stray too far from its basic plot, and skimps on any psychological undertones in favour of a straight ahead anti-hero vs. the bad guys scenario that makes for a pleasant diversion.

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Beyond the Reach (2014) / D: Jean-Baptiste Léonetti / 91m

Cast: Michael Douglas, Jeremy Irvine, Ronny Cox, Hanna Mangan Lawrence

Rating: 6/10 – arrogant businessman Madec (Douglas) hires tracker Ben (Irvine) in order to bag some game out of season, but when he shoots and kills an old man by mistake, Madec refuses to accept responsibility for his actions and when Ben stands his ground over the issue, finds himself being hunted instead through the harsh Mojave Desert; an occasionally tense two hander that will do little for either actor’s career, Beyond the Reach ramps up the contrivance levels with each successive narrow escape that Ben makes, and with each missed shot that Madec makes, leading to the inevitable conclusion that this is one movie where credulity needs to be left at the door – an idea that is further enhanced by the movie’s risible conclusion.

Email sent from: "Barnard, Linda"  lbarnard@thestar.ca  Subject: Beyond the Reach Date: 9 April, 2015 4:30:15 PM EDT   Jeremy Irvine and Michael Douglas star in Beyond The Reach Linda Barnard Movie Writer The Toronto Star thestar.com 416-869-4290

Blood (2012) / Nick Murphy / 92m

Cast: Paul Bettany, Mark Strong, Stephen Graham, Brian Cox, Ben Crompton, Naomi Battrick, Zoë Tapper, Adrian Edmondson

Rating: 5/10 – when a young girl is found murdered, the police, led by Joe Fairburn (Bethany) immediately set their sights on local child molester Jason Buleigh (Crompton), but when their prime suspect has to be let go for lack of evidence, Joe and his brother Chrissie (Graham) decide to take the law into their own hands, with terrible results; grim, visually depressing, and with a script that has more holes in it than a string vest, Blood has only its performances to recommend it, particularly those of Bethany, Graham and Cox, as well as the sense to know that its tale of a proud man’s downfall is always more interesting when you don’t know just how far they’ll fall.

Blood

Echelon Conspiracy (2009) / D: Greg Marcks / 102m

aka The Conspiracy; The Gift

Cast: Shane West, Ed Burns, Ving Rhames, Martin Sheen, Tamara Feldman, Jonathan Pryce, Sergey Gubanov, Todd Jensen

Rating: 3/10 – computer security tech Max Peterson is given a mysterious phone that helps him gain a small fortune, but in doing so he finds himself embroiled in a plot to ensure that the NSA’s super computer, Echelon, gains the upgrade it needs in order to spy on everyone globally; so bad on so many levels, Echelon Conspiracy wastes its (mostly) talented cast, flirts with credibility before running away from it at high speed, offers laughs in places where they shouldn’t be, and is the cinematic equivalent of a car crash.

Echelon Conspiracy

Crazy Sexy Cancer (2007) / D: Kris Carr / 90m

With: Kris Carr, Jackie Farry, Melissa Gonzalez, Brian Fassett, Aura Carr, Kenneth Carr, Leslie Carr, Oni Faida Lampley, Bhavagan Das

Rating: 7/10 – when aspiring actress Kris Carr was diagnosed with cancer, she decided to make a visual record of the process of dealing with it, and the various ways in which other cancer sufferers have done so, and supported by the cameraman/editor who became her husband, as well as family and friends; an uplifting, positive message for anyone dealing with cancer, or who knows someone who is, Crazy Sexy Cancer is the kind of documentary that doesn’t attempt to overdo the physical and emotional strain of being in such a situation, but which does nevertheless offer plenty of poignant moments in amongst the hospital visits, and shows Carr to be a determined, aggressive would-be survivor.

Crazy Sexy Cancer

The Night Flier (1997) / D: Mark Pavia / 94m

Cast: Miguel Ferrer, Julie Entwisle, Dan Monahan, Michael H. Moss, John Bennes, Beverly Skinner, Rob Wilds, Richard K. Olsen, Elizabeth McCormick

Rating: 7/10 – hard-nosed, disreputable reporter Richard Dees investigates a series of murders carried out at small airstrips that appear to be the work of a vampire, but his initial scepticism gives way to reluctant belief as he talks to witnesses, and sees the injuries the victims have sustained; a well-crafted movie that betrays its low budget and scrappy production design, The Night Flier is still one of the better Stephen King adaptations thanks to Pavia’s confident handling of the material, Ferrer’s see-if-I-care performance, and some impressively nasty effects work courtesy of the KNB Group.

Night Flier, The

Killer by Nature (2010) / D: Douglas S. Younglove / 90m

Cast: Ron Perlman, Armand Assante, Zachary Ray Sherman, Lin Shaye, Haley Hudson, Richard Riehle, Richard Portnow, Svetlana Efremova, Jason Hildebrandt

Rating: 3/10 – troubled by nightmares of murder and sleepwalking, teen Owen (Sherman) undergoes therapy with Dr Julian (Perlman), a therapist who believes that a person’s essential nature is handed down through bloodlines – a theory originated by convicted murderer Eugene Branch (Assante), and who is connected to Owen in a way that causes Owen to believe he might be the perpetrator of a series of murders that mimic Branch’s modus operandi; a thriller that can’t decide if it’s tepid or overwrought, and then settles for both (sometimes in the same scene), Killer by Nature is a humdinger of a bad movie, and proof positive that sometimes the old saying that “if you can, it doesn’t mean you should” relates to far too many movies for comfort – especially this farrago of awful performances, pseudo-intellectual posturing, and deathless direction.

Killer by Nature

Scooby-Doo! and the Samurai Sword (2009) / D: Christopher Berkeley / 75m

Cast: Frank Welker, Casey Kasem, Mindy Cohn, Grey DeLisle, Kelly Hu, Kevin Michael Richardson, Sab Shimono, Keone Young, Gedde Watanabe, George Takei, Brian Cox

Rating: 6/10 – on a trip to Japan, Scooby-Doo and the gang become involved in the search for a mystical sword, while trying to thwart the efforts of the ghost of the Black Samurai to beat them to it; a middling entry in the series that at least provides a different backdrop than the standard old dark house (or mine, or hotel, or funfair…), and which allows Shaggy and Scooby to be the heroes we all know they really are deep down, while displaying a pleasing awareness of Japanese culture.

Scooby-Doo! and the Samurai Sword

[Rec]³ Génesis (2012) / D: Paco Plaza / 80m

Cast: Leticia Dolera, Diego Martín, Ismael Martínez, Àlex Monner, Sr. B, Emilio Mencheta, David Ramírez, Miguel Ángel González

Rating: 7/10 – a young couple’s wedding day is disrupted for good when one of the guests takes a bite out of another one, leading to a frenzied free-for-all among the guests and a fight for survival for those not affected by whatever’s causing people to become zombies – including the bride and groom, who have become separated in the mêlée; half found footage, half professionally filmed, [Rec]³ Génesis acts as a prequel to the events of the first two movies but is let down by both the change in location, and the absence of Claudia Silva, as well as a sense that by going backwards in terms of the outbreak and its possible cause, the makers are treading water until an idea as to how to carry the story forward from [Rec]2 (2009) comes along.

Rec3 Genesis

uwantme2killhim? (2013) / D: Andrew Douglas / 92m

Cast: Jamie Blackley, Toby Regbo, Joanne Froggatt, Jaime Winstone, Liz White, Mark Womack, Louise Delamere, Stephanie Leonidas, Mingus Johnston

Rating: 7/10 – popular schoolboy Mark (Blackley) leads a secret life on the Internet, where he invests his time and emotions in relationships with people he’s never met, but when of those people ask him to stop their younger brother, John (Regbo), from being bullied, what follows sets Mark on a dangerous path to murder; based on a true story, and told with a glum sense of foreboding throughout, uwantme2killhim? is an engrossing (though slightly frustrating) recounting of one of the strangest cases of the last fifteen years, and features two very good performances from Blackley and Regbo, though they have to fight against a script that favours repetition over clarity, but which still manages to flesh out what must have been a very strange relationship between the two boys.

JAMIE BLACKLEY (Mark) (L) & TOBY REGBO (John) (R) in UWANTME2KILLHIM? (c) 2011 U Want M2K Ltd. Photo by Mark Tillie

Bulldog Drummond in Africa (1938) / D: Louis King / 58m

Cast: John Howard, Heather Angel, H.B. Warner, J. Carrol Naish, Reginald Denny, E.E. Clive, Anthony Quinn

Rating: 7/10 – on the very day that Drummond (Howard) is finally due to marry his long-suffering girlfriend Phyllis (Angel) he becomes embroiled in the kidnapping of his old friend Colonel Nielsen (Warner), and finds himself travelling to Morocco – with Phyllis, butler Tenny (Clive) and old pal Algy (Denny) in tow – in order to rescue him; the fourth in the series is perhaps the funniest, with Howard allowed to spread his comedic wings, and even the villain (played again by Naish) given some splendidly dry remarks to make in amongst the threats of death by hungry lion, and a bomb on Drummond’s plane.

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The Four-Faced Liar (2010) / D: Jacob Chase / 87m

Cast: Daniel Carlisle, Todd Kubrak, Emily Peck, Marja-Lewis Ryan, Liz Osborn

Rating: 8/10 – five friends – couples Greg (Carlisle) and Molly (Peck), Trip (Kubrak) and Chloe (Osborn), and single lesbian Bridget (Ryan) – experience various ups and downs in their relationships, especially when Trip has a one night stand, and Molly finds herself attracted to Bridget; a refreshingly honest look at what relationships mean to different individuals, and how they affect the people around them, The Four-Faced Liar is an effective, well-written drama that benefits from good performances all round, a soundtrack that supports the mood throughout, and Chase’s confident approach to Ryan’s script.

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Mini-Review: Queen & Country (2014)

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Queen & Country

D: John Boorman / 110m

Cast: Caleb Landry Jones, Callum Turner, Pat Shortt, David Thewlis, Richard E. Grant, Vanessa Kirby, Tamsin Egerton, Aimee-Ffion Edwards, Sinéad Cusack, David Hayman, John Standing, Brian F. O’Byrne, Julian Wadham

Nine years after the events depicted in Hope and Glory (1987), eighteen year old Bill Rohan (Turner) is nurturing a desire to get into movie making. But National Service comes along and Bill is conscripted into the Army, where his skills lead him – and his friend Percy (Jones) – to teaching other conscripts how to type. With the threat of being transferred to the front line in Korea hovering over them, Bill and Percy make the best of their lot, including continual run-ins with their immediate superior, the punctilious Sergeant-Major Bradley (Thewlis). They find a comrade in skiver Private Redmond (Shortt), and resolve to steal the regimental clock as a two-fingered salute to one of their senior officers, the pompous, overbearing RSM Digby.

While Bill and Percy circumvent the rules with seeming impunity, they also find love: Percy with nurse Sophie (Edwards), and Bill with emotionally distant Ophelia (Egerton). But the course of true love fails to run smoothly for either of them, with Ophelia proving complicit in an abusive relationship, and Percy showing no signs of committing to Sophie. Their run-ins with Sgt-Major Bradley escalate to the point where they turn the tables on him, a decision which has unforeseen consequences. The search for the regimental clock leads Private Redmond – suspected by Digby and Major Cross (Grant), the officer in charge – to ratting on Percy to avoid being sent to Korea. With his friend facing a court-martial, and his affair with Ophelia offering no comfort, Bill’s rite of passage to adulthood proves a rockier experience than he ever expected.

Queen & Country - scene

Widely reported as John Boorman’s swan song movie, Queen & Country is a largely disappointing end to a career that has had some tremendous highs – Point Blank (1967), Deliverance (1972), The General (1998) – and one incredible low – Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977). What’s disappointing is that Boorman has failed to inject the same kind of nostalgic bonhomie that made Hope and Glory such a joy to watch. And though the movie is based on Boorman’s own experiences in the Fifties, there’s little here that resonates as effectively as his experiences of World War II. It’s a shame, as the movie will generate a lot of interest due to the warm regard held by its predecessor, but anyone persuaded to watch this as part of a Boorman double bill with Hope and Glory would do well to choose something else (the undervalued Leo the Last (1970) perhaps).

This isn’t to say that the movie is a complete disaster – Boorman is too good a director for that, and the material does have moments where it’s both affecting and heartfelt. Bill’s despair at the actions of Ophelia tugs at the heartstrings, while Bradley’s officious nature hides a man struggling to maintain his sanity. The performances range from the credulous (Jones, all sniggering, body-wracking obnoxiousness), to the pantomimic (Grant, operating at a level of high-strung anxiety that would look less out of place in a drawing-room farce), while Egerton strikes a chilling note as an upper-class object of desire who has no idea of her own self-worth. Turner is okay as the older Bill, but thanks to Boorman’s script, is hampered by being too likeable throughout, and isn’t allowed to show any other facets of the character. But the standout is Kirby as Bill’s rapacious sister, Dawn, a force of nature that the script – thankfully – fails to keep a lid on. References to Bill’s family living near to Shepperton Studios hint at his future endeavours and there’s a lovely final shot that is as succinct as it is emotive. If Boorman is persuaded to continue making movies, his take on starting out in the industry would be well worth waiting for.

Rating: 5/10 – awkwardly irreverent in its dealings with the Army, but on surer ground in its more emotional relationships, Queen & Country is a mix of drama and comedy that never quite gels; with some scenes that feel extraneous, and others that seem burdened by the need to harken back to Hope and Glory, this is a movie that – sadly – promises more than it actually delivers.

Insidious Chapter 3 (2015)

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Insidious Chapter 3

D: Leigh Whannell / 97m

Cast: Lin Shaye, Dermot Mulroney, Stefanie Scott, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, Michael Reid MacKay, Phyllis Applegate, Ele Keats

When single father Sean Brenner (Mulroney) and his teenage daughter, Quinn (Scott), move into a new apartment following the death of Quinn’s mother (Keats), the teenager’s desire to contact her mother leads her to visit retired medium Elise Rainier (Shaye). Reluctant to use her gift since becoming aware that each time she does she leaves herself open to attack from a murderous spirit – the bride in black – Elise agrees to try and contact Quinn’s mother, but another presence makes itself felt, one that scares Elise into warning Quinn to be careful about contacting her mother in the future.

Quinn begins to experience strange phenomena within the apartment, including knocking and loud footsteps from the apartment above. Cracks appear in the ceiling and walls of her room. Sean checks the upstairs apartment but it’s been empty for a while. Further disturbances occur, and Quinn is attacked, leading to both her legs being broken. Later, another attack witnessed by her father leads to her neck being injured. At this point, Sean reluctantly contacts Elise, who equally reluctantly agrees to try and help. Elise comes to the apartment and tries to contact the spirit persecuting Quinn – an entity who died in the building and is dubbed the Man Who Can’t Breathe – but is attacked by the bride in black instead. Shocked by this, Elise leaves, saying she can no longer help them.

As Quinn becomes more and more frightened by what’s happening to her, she persuades her father to contact a couple of paranormal investigators, Tucker (Sampson) and Specs (Whannell). They set up their equipment but are unprepared for the supernatural events that follow; as they pack up, Elise returns, having been reassured by a friend as to the strength of her gift. With Tucker and Specs in support, Elise travels back into the Further where she discovers Quinn, but in a faceless, limbless state: the half of Quinn’s soul that the entity has control of. Back in the apartment, Elise reveals that the battle for Quinn’s soul is down to Quinn herself. But Quinn is losing the battle, until Elise becomes aware of a presence that could tip the balance in the young girl’s favour…

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As any horror movie afficionado will tell you, three is rarely the charm when it comes to horror movie franchises. And Insidious Chapter 3 is no different in that respect, coming as it does after two previous entries that explored the effects of prolonged supernatural distress on the same family, the unlucky Lamberts. The decision here to make a prequel to those movies seems, at first look, to be a solid idea given the chance it takes to bring back Lin Shaye’s popular psychic. But as with any third entry, familiarity undercuts any chance of effective suspense or scares, a problem that Leigh Whannell’s script never overcomes.

The main problem is that we’ve all been here before, and though Whannell – taking over from James Wan in the director’s chair – is well-versed in the particular universe he and Wan have created, is still unable to bring anything new to the table (or the realm of the Further) that provides the required thrills and chills. The Man Who Can’t Breathe is an admittedly unsettling presence – at first – but then makes too many appearances to remain entirely scary. The appearance of the bride in black also lacks the fear factor of the previous instalments (as we know she can’t actually harm Elise), and she’s seen too much in close up to be truly startling. And the Further, once the realm of the scarily unexpected, is now the realm of the mildly alarming. But it’s the movie’s final shot that shows just how much the movie is its own insidious mix of narrative set up (for parts one and two) and self-reflexive homage, as a moment from the first movie is rehashed with a lot less style or potency.

But at least it’s not as dubiously shambolic as some prequels/sequels/later entries in a horror movie franchise. Whannell and co are really trying to scare their audience, and while any originality in doing so is quickly exhausted, at least there’s an effort involved here that most Part Threes never manage. The plot is fairly simple, a hook on which to hang a few uneasy moments that, unfortunately, never fully realise their potential, and though most viewers will see what few twists the narrative provides from a whole other dimension away, there’s enough serious intent here to offset any shortcomings. This doesn’t mean that the movie works per se, just that it doesn’t work as badly as may be expected.

Where the movie does do well is with the performances. Mulroney, making his horror debut – though a case could be made for Stoker (2013) – is surprisingly good as the beleaguered father who’s way out of his depth, but determined to save his daughter no matter what. Returning as the equally out of their depth paranormal investigators Tucker and Specs, Sampson and Whannell replay their enjoyable double act but as in the previous movies, without making them seem too much like complete buffoons. The one weak link is Scott, who never quite convinces as a teen in peril, and whose reactions to the events going on around her always feel like they’ve been lifted from the performance of another actress in a similar role. But it’s Shaye’s movie throughout, her portrayal of Elise given added depth thanks to the inclusion of nods to her deceased husband, and her ability to get across just how scary the Further really is (even if the time spent there in the movie doesn’t support her contention). She also gets a moment straight out of the Sigourney Weaver/Ripley School of Confrontational One-Liners, aimed at the bride in black and guaranteed to raise a smile.

If there is to be a fourth in the series then it’s difficult to see where the makers could go next. As the movie which brings together Elise and Tucker and Specs, Insidious Chapter 3 does its job with a certain amount of gusto and charm. But if the series is to move forward rather than, say, further back, or sideways, then a whole new approach is going to be required. Whether it will restore the intensity and the scares of the first movie, though, is another matter entirely.

Rating: 6/10 – with the scare quotient dialled down in favour of connecting to the previous (subsequent?) entries in the series, Insidious Chapter 3 is only occasionally scary, and only occasionally enthralling; helped greatly by the commitment of its cast and crew, this is one horror movie prequel that tries hard to avoid the pitfalls of its place in the franchise.

Mini-Review: Survivor (2015)

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Survivor

D: James McTeigue / 96m

Cast: Milla Jovovich, Pierce Brosnan, Dylan McDermott, Angela Bassett, James D’Arcy, Robert Forster, Frances de la Tour, Roger Rees, Benno Fürmann, Genevieve O’Reilly, Corey Johnson

Kate Abbott (Jovovich) has transferred to the American Embassy in London. She oversees visa applications to the US by foreign nationals travelling through the UK. When she suspects that gas expert Dr Balan (Rees) isn’t all that he seems, it leads to her being hunted by assassin the Watchmaker (Brosnan). With only her colleague, Sam Parker (McDermott), believing she’s had nothing to do with the deaths of other colleagues in a bomb blast, or that of her immediate boss, Bill Talbot (Forster), Kate is forced to go on the run in an attempt to get to the bottom of the conspiracy she’s found herself entangled in.

Narrowly escaping several attempts on her life by the Watchmaker, Kate realises she has to get back into the embassy in order to find the proof she needs to expose the conspiracy. Helped by Sam and another colleague, Sally (de la Tour), Kate discovers enough information to send her off to New York on New Year’s Eve. Followed by the Watchmaker, Kate has only a few hours to foil a terrorist attack planned for midnight in Times Square, and which is backed by the pharmaceutical company that Balan works for.

Survivor - scene

Take a director whose previous output includes V for Vendetta (2005) and the underrated Ninja Assassin (2009), add two principal stars who are no strangers to the action genre, a supporting cast of more than capable (and proven) actors, and good location work in both London and New York – and what do you get? A terrible piece of nonsense that doesn’t even bother to try and hide how preposterous it all is. This is largely thanks to Philip Shelby’s overly-simplistic, corner-cutting script, a melange of action movie clichés and inane dialogue lumped in amongst an unconvincing plot and the kind of one-dimensional characterisations that leave the viewer shaking their head in disbelief.

There’s no point at which Survivor is even remotely credible, and while there’s a small degree of amusement to be had at each nutty development in the script, McTeigue fails to maintain any degree of confidence behind the camera. As a result, the movie plods from one uninspired set piece to the next without pausing for breath or an injection of self-belief. Jovovich runs around a lot looking frazzled and confused (as well she might), while Brosnan sleepwalks through his role with the look of an actor wondering where his career went to. By the end, with its inevitable showdown between Kate and the Watchmaker, the movie has given up trying to be exciting or different, and renders itself completely unremarkable.

Rating: 3/10 – why movies like these continue to be made is anybody’s guess, but Survivor is an object lesson in how not to make a modern day thriller with Cold War overtones; lacking credibility is one thing, but lacking suspense as well makes for a poorly judged and ill-considered movie that viewers can only help will end sooner than it does.

Trailer – The Secret Life of Pets (2016)

From the creators of the Minions, Illumination Entertainment’s offering for 2016 is this penetrating insight into what happens when pet owners leave their homes and their pets behind. The trailer is hilarious, and will have pet owners nodding in rueful agreement at the antics shown (who doesn’t know a Chloe or a Mel?). The only problem? We have to wait a year until we get to see the finished movie.

10 Reasons to Remember Christopher Lee (1922-2015)

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The sad passing of Christopher Lee this month means not just the end of an amazing career, but the loss of an actor who was always good value even if some of the movies he made weren’t. Of course, he’ll be forever associated with the movies he made for Hammer, including seven outings as Count Dracula. But he had a much more varied career than that, and was a versatile actor who could turn his hand to pretty much any genre you care to mention. His imposing figure and richly textured voice were instantly recognisable, and he still remains one of the few actors who are also an honorary member of three stuntmen’s unions.

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1 – Dracula (1958)

2 – Rasputin the Mad Monk (1966)

3 – The Devil Rides Out (1968)

4 – The Wicker Man (1973)

5 – The Three Musketeers (1973)

6 – The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)

7 – The Return of Captain Invincible (1983)

8 – Jinnah (1998)

9 – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings (2001)

10 – Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

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The Lazarus Effect (2015)

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Lazarus Effect, The

D: David Gelb / 83m

Cast: Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde, Evan Peters, Sarah Bolger, Donald Glover, Amy Aquino, Ray Wise

10 Reasons Why The Lazarus Effect Will Disappoint You:

1) It’s a Frankenstein variation that swaps injected chemicals for lightning bolts (not nearly as visually exciting).

2) Mark Duplass’ character, Frank, is supposed to be driven but instead comes across as petulant – Duplass is good at petulant but not at being a scientist.

3) Ray Wise pops in for a cameo as a corporate douchebag and takes all their research notes and computer drives – but it doesn’t stop them replicating their experiment.

4) They first revive a dog who turns out to have an aggression problem, but they don’t do anything about it, and still keep him around the lab.

5) Olivia Wilde is a fine actress with a great filmography, but she does herself no favours here with a performance that wishes it could be merely inadequate.

6) Aside from Frankenstein, it also borrows heavily from Carrie (1976) and Lucy (2014) but not in a good way, and not with any fresh ideas grafted on.

7) The reason for Zoe coming back with one hell of a mean streak is never explained, and no one even attempts to explain it.

8) What few “scares” there are in the movie are repetitively set up around the lights going out and then coming on again (boo!).

9) The script – by Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater – wants the viewer to believe that Frank et al can work undetected in a lab overnight until it becomes convenient for the script to say that, actually, they have been watched the whole time… and Ray Wise’s corporate douchebag doesn’t show up.

10) You don’t care when Zoe starts killing off her colleagues; in fact, you feel a little bit envious that they’re out of the movie, but you’re still watching it.

And lastly, a message to studio executives everywhere: if a screenwriter can’t plug the many holes in his or her plot or storyline, then send them away until they can. And if they’re touting a horror script, don’t believe that any kind of weird shit will be scary when it’s translated to the big screen. It isn’t. And one last thing: don’t ever green light a sequel to this movie – ever.

Rating: 3/10 – once again an example of how worryingly bad some studio backed horror movies can be; The Lazarus Effect is silly, stupid, a waste of a good cast, and directed by Gelb in a way that screams “coincidence” given that his first (short) movie was called Lethargy (2002).

San Andreas (2015)

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San Andreas

D: Brad Peyton / 114m

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Giamatti, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson, Will Yun Lee, Kylie Minogue

Ray Gaines (Johnson) is a helicopter rescue pilot with the Los Angeles Fire Department, separated from his wife Emma (Gugino), but on very good terms with his daughter, Blake (Daddario). He plans to take a few days off to spend some time with her in San Francisco, but he has to shelve those plans when an earthquake destroys the Hoover Dam, and he’s called back to work. In apologising to Blake, he learns that Emma is planning to live with her new boyfriend, property developer Daniel Riddick (Gruffudd). Daniel suggests taking Blake to San Francisco himself and they leave soon after.

While Ray takes part in various rescue missions, seismologist Lawrence Hayes (Giamatti) – who was at the dam when it broke – is becoming increasingly worried that that earthquake was just a precursor to a series of much bigger, much more devastating ones. When one such earthquake strikes Los Angeles, Emma finds herself in a high rise building having lunch with Daniel’s sister, Susan (Minogue). As the quake hits she’s talking to Ray on the phone; he tells her to get to the roof and he’ll come and rescue her. Further quakes strike towns and cities up and down the California coast, including San Francisco. With Emma safe on board his helicopter, Ray receives a call from Blake: she’s trapped in a car in the basement of Daniel’s office building and it’s about to collapse.

Ray and Emma decide they have to try and rescue Blake, but the helicopter they’re in develops a fault and they crash land in Bakersfield. Managing to commandeer a plane, they continue on to San Francisco. Meanwhile, Blake has been rescued by a British engineer she met earlier at Daniel’s offices. Ben (Johnstone-Burt) and his younger brother Ollie (Parkinson) stay with Blake as she works out a way to let Ray know she’s okay. When she does he tells her to meet him in a particular place that has a special meaning to both of them. But it’s not possible for her to get there, so she heads for Daniel’s latest high rise development instead. Ray and Emma parachute out of the plane and land in San Francisco; when they realise Blake can’t get to the rendezvous site, they also discover that a tsunami is coming that will swamp the city. And when it does, Blake, Ben and Ollie find themselves trapped in Daniel’s building with the waters steadily rising, and Ray and Emma having no idea of where they are…

San Andreas - scene

A disaster movie – the moviegoer’s guilty pleasure – should always favour spectacular destruction over coherent plot, story or characterisation. It should feature enough devastation to leave the viewer slack-jawed in admiration at what the special effects wizards can achieve. It should cater to that part of us that slows down to look when we pass a road accident. And above all, it should show us something that we might all experience some day, regardless of how safe we might feel in our own little corner of the world.

San Andreas should give us all that and more. But instead it’s a curiously bloodless affair, full of moments where the cast look awestruck at some fresh new aspect of the disaster around them, and where Hayes’ doom-laden dialogue hypes the destruction to near-apocalyptic levels. There are some impressive shots it’s true, but some – such as the awkward destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge – seem too absurd to appear feasible, or are rendered in such a way that the wow factor plays second fiddle to any plausibility. This might not be too much of a concern though if what we’re witnessing is something new, but the devastation wrought in the movie, while impressively mounted, has been done elsewhere already, and San Andreas, while promising the mother of all earthquakes from very early on – one that will be felt “on the East Coast” – actually falls short of doing so.

Instead, what we have is a tale of a family’s determination to survive against all the odds, and in Ray’s case, without regard for the job he does. Once the earthquake hits Los Angeles and all points Californian, Ray becomes a solo pilot, where before he’s been part of a four-man team. He rescues Emma and then jettisons any notion of helping others with a quick “we have to find our daughter” (not that anyone’s trying to contact him with any instructions or requests for help). He’s reckless as well, putting himself and Emma in harm’s way time after time: let’s crash the helicopter in a clothing store, let’s parachute out of a plane, let’s head into the swell of an oncoming tsunami – the more dangerous the action, the more determined he seems to tackle it. In a different kind of movie, Ray would be an adrenaline junkie with a death wish; here, he’s a big-hearted father who’s doing the best he can (gosh darn it!).

It’s a good thing then that Johnson is more than capable of helping the viewer ignore or forget these contradictions, putting in an emotive performance that sees him remind everyone why he’s the go-to guy for this kind of big-budget nonsense. Whether he’s ripping car doors off their hinges, or holding his breath underwater for minutes at a time, Johnson’s amiable muscularity fits the needs of the script admirably, even when Ray is called upon to relive a past tragedy. As a chip off the old block, Daddario provides an earnest counterpoint to Johnson’s grim-faced determination, while Giamatti bleeds sincerity as the tormented seismologist who saw it all coming. Spare a thought however, for Gugino – along for the ride and little else – and Gruffudd – asked to become a prick in the space of a nano-second. Both actors are ill-served by Carlton Cuse’s ill-focused screenplay, as is Johnstone-Burt, who’s called upon to play the kind of stereotypical good-natured bumbling Brit who sounds like minor royalty.

Behind the camera, Peyton orchestrates all the mayhem with a good eye for packing the frame with as much incident as possible, and there’s an effective score from Andrew Lockington that supports the action without overwhelming it. Fans of the disaster genre will particularly approve of the many building falling into/against/onto other building shots, and the refreshingly practical effects work used to show that a movie of this sort doesn’t have to be all digital. Others, though, may look at all the devastation and wonder, why does a lot of it have problems with scale?

Rating: 6/10 – while it’s enjoyable in a big dumb leave-your-brain-at-the-door kind of way, San Andreas has a script that features enough fault lines to warrant a warning sign all its own; a movie where the spectacle never quite inspires the awe or wonder it needs to, it fits neatly into the category of guilty pleasure but without really doing too much to earn its place there.

Mini-Review: Poltergeist (2015)

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Poltergeist

D: Gil Kenan / 93m

Cast: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jared Harris, Jane Adams, Kyle Catlett, Saxon Sharbino, Kennedi Clements, Susan Heyward, Nicholas Braun

The Bowens – recently laid-off Eric (Rockwell), aspiring writer Amy (DeWitt), teenage daughter Kendra (Sharbino), young son Griffin (Catlett), and youngest daughter Madison (Clements) – move into their new home on a quiet estate. It’s a new start for all of them, but Griffin, who’s a nervous child at the best of times, senses that there’s something “off” about the house. When he finds Madison talking to someone in her room – who isn’t there – it adds to his unease. Later that night he finds a box full of clown toys that makes him even more anxious, as it seems one of them just might be alive.

The next day sees even more strange phenomena happen throughout the house, phenomena that escalates once Eric and Amy have gone out for the evening to a dinner party. Kendra is attacked in the basement, Griffin is grabbed by the tree in their front yard, and Madison disappears through a portal that opens up in the back of her wardrobe. Eric and Amy arrive home in time to save Griffin but when they can’t find Madison – who can now only speak to them through the TV – they turn to a group of paranormal investigators led by Dr Brooke Powell (Adams) to help get their daughter back. When events escalate even further, and it becomes clear that there are spirits trying to use Madison to free themselves from their earthly prison, Powell asks for help from an unlikely source: her ex-husband and TV ghost hunter Carrigan Burke (Harris). With time running out, a rescue mission is attempted to try and bring back Madison before it’s too late, but while Carrigan, Eric and Amy argue about who should go, Griffin beats them to it…

Poltergeist - scene

Another week, another unwanted horror movie remake. As with all the other horror remakes we’ve been “treated” to in the past five or six years, Poltergeist fails to hit the mark it’s aiming for, and is about as scary as a loaf of bread. This version also can’t decide if it wants to be a straight-up remake, or a completely new reimagining, and because it can’t decide it ends up being an unwieldy, awkward mix of the two. And despite the more than capable cast, you don’t care about any of the characters, not even Madison. Part of the problem here is that in trying to be respectful of the original movie but not slavish to it, the makers have missed the whole reason why Tobe Hooper’s version was, partly, so good: it was fresh and we hadn’t seen anything like it before. This version is tired from the moment that Griffin walks in the door and starts looking around suspiciously. Uh-oh! Something’s up!

There’s no tension this time round either. When the tree outside Griffin’s room is first seen we know it’s supposed to be spooky and creepy and eerie and menacing, but in the hands of the usually talented Kenan – working from David Lindsay-Abaire’s by the numbers script – it’s just a tree blowing in the wind, again and again. It’s yet another example of how familiarity breeds disappointment. To make matters worse, the performances range from unexceptional (Sharbino, Adams) to disappointing (Rockwell, DeWitt) to annoying (Harris), and each attempt to add depth to the characters or story is left high and dry by not being followed through. All in all it’s a movie where just enough was done to get by.

Rating: 4/10 – good production values save this from being a complete dud, but as a horror movie that doesn’t provide any real scares it’s a far cry from effective; when there are movies of the calibre of It Follows (2014) out there showing how it should be done, it makes this Poltergeist look very redundant indeed.

Spy (2015)

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Spy

D: Paul Feig / 120m

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Miranda Hart, Allison Janney, Bobby Cannavale, Peter Serafinowicz, Morena Baccarin, Richard Brake, Nargis Fakhri, 50 Cent, Jude Law

CIA operatives Bradley Fine (Law) and Susan Cooper (McCarthy) are the best team in the organisation: Fine out in the field, Susan back at HQ guiding and protecting him on his missions. After Fine misses out on the chance to find the whereabouts of a nuclear weapon that’s up for sale – by accidentally shooting the seller – the CIA soon learns that the seller’s daughter, Rayna Boyanov (Byrne), has taken over the sale and through corrupt businessman Sergio De Luca (Cannavale) is offering it to terrorist Solsa Dudaev (Brake).

Fine infiltrates Rayna’s home but discovers it’s a trap; Susan has to watch as Rayna kills him. When it becomes clear that Rayna knows the identities of all of the CIA’s top agents, including gung-ho hothead Rick Ford (Statham), Susan volunteers to travel to Paris where De Luca has an office, and to report back any activity. Followed there by Ford, who thinks she’ll compromise the mission, Susan discovers that De Luca is now in Rome. Once there, she switches her dowdy undercover identity for a more upmarket one, and trails De Luca to a casino. She witnesses a man spike a drink at the bar; when the drink is delivered to none other than Rayna, Susan sees her chance to get close to Fine’s killer and find out the location of the nuclear weapon.

Gaining Rayna’s confidence, the pair fly to Budapest. During the flight one of the pilot tries to kill Rayna but Susan overpowers him and lands the plane instead. In the process she reveals her skills as an agent, and Rayna becomes convinced she works for the CIA. Susan manages to convince her that her father employed Susan to look after her. Rayna believes her story, but when they arrive in Budapest, matters are complicated by the arrival of Susan’s best friend and co-worker, Nancy (Hart) who has been sent to check on her. Pretending Nancy works for her, Susan foils another bid to kill Rayna, but in doing so finds herself at Rayna’s mercy, and with the sale of the nuclear weapon a matter of hours away.

Spy - scene

It’s been four short years since Melissa McCarthy shot to fame by defecating into a sink in the movie Bridesmaids (2011). In that time she’s continued with her role in the TV show Mike & Molly, had a minor role in This Is 40 (2012), given supporting turns in The Hangover Part III (2013) and St. Vincent (2014), co-starred with Sandra Bullock in The Heat (2013), and headlined two movies of her own, Identity Thief (2013) and Tammy (2014). If the last two movies didn’t exactly set critical pulses racing, both took over $100,000,000 worldwide, proving that audiences enjoyed watching slight variations on the character she first played in director Paul Feig’s earlier movie.

But it was a character that had a limited shelf life, and with Spy, McCarthy and Feig have wisely broadened their horizons, and in so doing, have given the actress her best role yet. As the ten years desk bound CIA agent who dreams of some excitement in her life, McCarthy delivers a performance that is at once more controlled and less wayward. In creating Susan Cooper, McCarthy shows that she has much more to offer than pratfalls and foul-mouthed schtick (even though there’s room for both here, just not as much as usual), and is more than capable of playing a fully rounded character. It’s good to see her owning the material as well and riffing on it to such good effect, making Susan possibly her most endearing, and appealing role to date, and entirely worthy of the movie itself.

For the best thing about Spy is that it’s consistently funny, whether it’s subverting genre conventions by thrusting the backroom girls into the spotlight, making Fine a preening douche, Ford a ridiculous blowhard, or giving Susan some of the worst makeovers in history for her undercover identities, the movie has great fun in spoofing the spy/action movie while maintaining a more serious subplot about Susan’s gaining enough self-confidence to fulfil her potential as an agent. That Feig’s script has the confidence to attempt both, and then succeed with seeming ease, adds to the movie’s lustre, and makes it all the more enjoyable.

As already noted, McCarthy delivers her best role to date, and she’s matched by the surprise – and inspired – casting of Statham as the kind of agent who can’t pass up an opportunity for a bit of self-aggrandisement. On this evidence, Statham should do more comedy, as here he’s hilarious, shouting and swearing like a man on the brink of a psychotic break, and making the kinds of boasts that are so absurd he doesn’t know how idiotic he sounds. But where Ford’s boasting is a highlight, he’s still outdone by the insults traded between Susan and Rayna, some of which are the funniest putdowns heard in recent years (and particularly when it comes to Rayna’s hairdo). Byrne and McCarthy have a great time deadpanning their lines at each other, and so does the audience as each insult escalates their dislike of each other’s character.

In support, Serafinowicz is irrepressible as Susan’s Italian contact, Aldo, for whom large bosoms are the key to happiness; Law is debonair, charming and an unfeeling arse; Janney is the CIA chief who sees promise in Susan’s wish to work in the field; Cannavale doesn’t really feature until the last twenty minutes; 50 Cent plays himself; and in a role that doesn’t see her stretch too far from her British TV persona, Hart racks up enough laughs as Nancy to have done her US career no harm at all. In short, it’s a great cast, and they all deliver as required.

The European locations are filmed by Robert D. Yeoman with that travelogue sheen that enhances even the most attractive of regions or cities, and as a result the movie is attractive to look at throughout. The music by Theodore Shapiro is occasionally overbearing, but this is due to its prominence in the sound mix rather than any compositional issues, and McCarthy’s wardrobe, courtesy of Christine Bieselin Clark, fluctuates from plain and functional to horrendous to glamorous (though her final look in the movie makes her appear too much like Dawn French for comfort). And the action scenes are splendidly realised, including a terrific fight between McCarthy and  Fakhri that wouldn’t look out of place in a… well, in a Jason Statham movie.

Rating: 8/10 – consistently entertaining, Spy is a treat for fans of McCarthy and spy spoofs in general; with a script that knows when to be serious and when to be gloriously silly, it’s a movie that is infectious in its desire to please its audience, something it does with no small amount of style and wit.

Teacher of the Year (2014)

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Teacher of the Year

D: Jason Strouse / 80m

Cast: Matt Letscher, Keegan-Michael Key, Sunny Mabrey, Larry Joe Campbell, Jamie Kaler, Jason Sklar, Randy Sklar, Tamlyn Tomita, Brenda Strong, Caitlin Carmichael, Chris Conner, Eden Riegel, Shari Belafonte, Karl T. Wright, Richard Keith, Lahna Turner, Gabriel Chavarria, Jonathan Goldstein, Olivia Crocicchia

At the relatively new Truman High School in Los Angeles – opened in 2007 – English teacher Mitch Carter (Letscher) has recently won the state teacher of the year award. With his stock in the teaching community riding high, he’s approached by a representative (Goldstein) of the National Independent School Association to become a lobbyist for them. The job entails appearing at symposiums, making speeches on behalf of the Association, a hefty increase in salary, and moving himself and his family – wife Kate (Mabrey) and young daughter Sierra (Carmichael) – to Washington D.C. But though the offer is tempting, Mitch needs time to think about it.

While he does, Mitch is also part of a documentary being made about him and the rest of the faculty, and the students, at Truman High. The principal is Ronald Douche (pronounced Dow-shay, “the same spelling, but the Dutch pronunciation”) (Key), an uptight, trying-too-hard-to-be-liked bureaucrat who garners little respect from either the teachers or the students. While he promotes the school’s achievements, the documentary crew go behind the scenes to discover just how much of what he says is true. What they find is a group of teachers who are all just a little bit weird, or just plain strange, like Brian Campbell (Conner), who uses a glove puppet in his maths class.

Mitch is interviewed for the role with NISA and realises to his surprise that it’s a job he’ll be good at, but the work he does with his students gives him pause. Still unable to make a decision, his own problems have to be put on the back burner when Brian is accused of molesting a student (Crocicchia) and suspended. With Douche intending to fire Brian and thereby keep the whole situation away from the press, a meeting is set up with the girl and her mother. With Kate newly pregnant and working too hard at an unrewarding job, Mitch is given an ultimatum by NISA: decide one way or the other, but just decide. In the end, it’s the outcome of the meeting to decide Brian’s fate that pushes Mitch to make his mind up. But will he stay, or will he go?

Teacher of the Year - scene

A pure joy from start to finish, Teacher of the Year is one of the funniest comedies of 2014, an inspired, laugh-out-loud, intelligently handled movie that adds drama and sentiment to the mix with undisguised aplomb. Writer/director Strouse has fashioned the kind of movie that can be enjoyed on so many different levels it’s like being given the keys to the candy store. There’s not one false note or misstep in the whole of its eighty minute running time.

As well as one of the most effective, carefully constructed mise en scenes of recent years, Strouse has created a raft of characters that are so beautifully realised by his cast that spending so little time with them seems like a crime. Aside from Brian and his glove puppet, there’s robotics teacher Steven Queeg (Kaler) who has issues over Mitch’s winning teacher of the year and who tells his students that the robots will take over the world in the future. There’s ineffectual history teacher Ian Donovan (Keith) whose inability to control his class leads to his offering to pay them to pay attention; vice principal Marv Collins (Campbell) who’s forever giving out detention slips for the smallest of infractions; Ursula Featherstone (Turner), whose musical summing up of The Miracle Worker and The Diary of Anne Frank is a definite highlight; and tenured Eric Sanders (Wright) who would give back half his salary if he could “punch a parent once a year”. Add two counsellors (Sklar, Sklar) who regularly give the worst advice you’re ever likely to hear – “Stay away from Nevada. You can go. But you’re gonna kill a hooker.” – and you have such a marvellous collection of misfits and malcontents that, again, you’ll want to spend as much time with them as possible.

But while the movie correctly focuses on the comedy, it doesn’t downplay or undermine the dramatic elements. Brian’s dilemma is handled with a greater depth of feeling than expected, as is Mitch’s relationship with his students (it’s a tribute to Strouse’s script that if Mitch was a real teacher you’d want him teaching at your kids’ school). The trials and tribulations of being a suburban school teacher are handled with an adroitness that adds credibility to each character, and Mitch’s home life is ably rendered as well, his marriage refreshingly free of unnecessary drama, and with its attendant dynamics kept equally low-key. The movie is shot through with unanticipated poignancy, and has several moments where it displays a warm-hearted centre that enhances both the drama and the comedy, and leaves the viewer smiling at the sheer pleasure watching the movie is providing.

Mitch is the smiling, genial core of the movie, an everyman with a heart of gold and a passion for teaching that comes across as entirely genuine, and Letscher is first class in the role, imbuing the part with a sincerity that never feels false. He’s ably supported  by a cast that milks every nuance and subtlety from Strouse’s script, and who do it with an obvious eagerness. It’s hard to single out any one particular cast member, but Kaler and Wright flesh out their characters so effectively, they make it really difficult to forget them in a hurry.

Strouse is to be congratulated for coming up with such a wonderfully astute and shaded script, and for directing it with such perception and skill. He’s aided immensely by DoP/editor Matthew Skala, whose aptitude at cutting together his own footage gives the movie a rhythm and a flow that suits it perfectly. And with a score containing songs by The Chicharones, the movie is as uplifting to listen to as it is to watch.

Rating: 9/10 – a sheer delight throughout, Teacher of the Year deserves to be seen by as many people as possible, its good-natured charm and winning formula an absolute joy to behold; whatever Strouse turns his hand to next, let’s hope it’s as richly satisfying as this one is.

Trailer – American Ultra (2015)

If you had to pick the most unlikeliest actor to be chosen to star as an action hero, then it’s a fairly safe bet that Jesse Eisenberg would be somewhere near the top of the list. But that’s exactly the hook that American Ultra looks to be relying on, as Eisenberg plays Mike Howell, a convenience store clerk who just happens to be a stoned cold killer. With a top notch cast in support – Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman amongst others – and a script by Max Landis, this action comedy looks like it could be a whole lot of fun if “the old frying pan bullet trick” is anything to go by.

Monthly Roundup – May 2015

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There’s a phrase that everyone will be familiar with: “Too many [insert item here], too little time”. When it comes to the number of movies that I watch in any given month, that phrase is apt in relation to the ones that get reviewed here on thedullwoodexperiment. I would love to have the time to post reviews of all the movies I see, but it’s just not practical; and besides which, some movies just don’t merit the attention (Annabelle (2014), for instance). Sometimes it’s a case of choosing one movie over another, sometimes Life gets in the way of blogging and a movie falls by the wayside. To combat this, and to give these “other” movies their due, I’ve decided to present, at the end of each month, a brief “review” of all the other movies I’ve seen. There won’t be any synopsis, or proper full-length analysis, just the title, director, running time, cast, and then the traditional two sentence ratings summation. So, let’s see which movies didn’t quite make the cut in May 2015.

The Forger (2014) / D: Philip Martin / 96m

Cast: John Travolta, Christopher Plummer, Tye Sheridan, Abigail Spencer, Anson Mount, Marcus Thomas, Jennifer Ehle, Travis Aaron Wade

Rating: 5/10 – Travolta’s art forger comes out of prison to spend time with his dying son (Sheridan) and pull off an audacious robbery; a derivative, occasionally unappealing crime drama that tries to do something different with its dying child angle, The Forger is nevertheless a movie whose “one last heist” scenario has been done to death elsewhere, and with far better results.

Forger, The - scene

The Gunfight at Dodge City (1959) / D: Joseph M. Newman / 81m

Cast: Joel McCrea, Julie Adams, John McIntire, Nancy Gates, Richard Anderson, James Westerfield, Walter Coy, Don Haggerty, Wright King, Harry Lauter

Rating: 6/10 – Western legend Bat Masterson (McCrea) tackles corruption supported by Haggerty’s devious sheriff in Dodge City and faces romantic problems as well from minister’s daughter Adams and saloon owner Gates; a middling, mildly diverting Western, The Gunfight at Dodge City benefits from McCrea’s solid, no-nonsense performance and Newman’s underrated abilities behind the camera.

Gunfight at Dodge City, The - scene

Comet (2014) / D: Sam Esmail / 91m

Cast: Justin Long, Emmy Rossum

Rating: 7/10 – Long and Rossum are the soulmates whose on-again-off-again relationship is examined over the course of six years; with the narrative continually fractured and reassembled, Comet is replete with the kind of “serious” romantic musings that sound alternately pretentious and profound, but the two leads have a definite chemistry and this helps immensely in making the movie as enjoyable as it (largely) is.

Comet - scene

Murder at Glen Athol (1936) / D: Frank R. Strayer / 67m

Cast: John Miljan, Irene Ware, Iris Adrian, Noel Madison, Oscar Apfel, Barry Norton, Harry Holman, Betty Blythe, James P. Burtis

Rating: 5/10 – two murders and a dying confession confuse matters for a detective (Miljan) who’s just trying to take a vacation – next door to where the murders have taken place; packed full of seemingly endless exposition and no shortage of suspects, Murder at Glen Athol is a sprightly murder mystery that packs a lot in but not always to its best advantage.

Murder at Glen Athol

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (2015) / D: Paul Tibbitt / 92m

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Tom Kenny, Clancy Brown, Bill Fagerbakke, Rodger Bumpass, Mr. Lawrence, Carolyn Lawrence

Rating: 7/10 – when the formula for Krabby Patty is stolen by the notorious Burger Beard (Banderas), SpongeBob (Kenny) is forced to team up with Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) to get it back… and venture above the surface; freewheeling fun with the denizens of Bikini Bottom that features lots of gags and the usual bright visuals, but takes an awfully long time in getting to the “sponge out of water” part.

SpongeBob Movie, The

Chappie (2015) / D: Neill Blomkamp / 120m

Cast: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Sigourney Weaver, Brandon Auret, Johnny Selema

Rating: 6/10 – with a robot police force firmly established in Johannesburg, the introduction of artificial intelligence leads to one robot, named Chappie, learning what it’s like to be human; disappointing outing from Blomkamp that never quite gels or seems sure of what it’s trying to do or say, but does feature an excellent performance from Copley.

Chappie

Impact (1963) / D: Peter Maxwell / 61m

Cast: Conrad Phillips, George Pastell, Ballard Berkeley, Linda Marlowe, Richard Klee, Anita West, John Rees

Rating: 5/10 – when newspaper reporter Jack Moir (Phillips) is framed for robbery by arch-nemesis “The Duke” (Pastell), he swears to get even when he gets out of jail; a low-key crime drama that seems busier than it is and which gets bogged down in the mechanics of Moir’s revenge plot, Impact does allow for a welcome appearance by Berkeley aka Fawlty Towers‘ Major, and an above average performance by Pastell.

Impact

The Loft (2014) / D: Erik Van Looy / 103m

Cast: Karl Urban, James Marsden, Wentworth Miller, Eric Stonestreet, Matthias Schoenaerts, Isabel Lucas, Rachael Taylor, Rhona Mitra, Valerie Cruz, Kali Rocha, Elaine Cassidy, Margarita Levieva, Kristin Lehman, Robert Wisdom

Rating: 6/10 – the discovery of a woman’s dead body in the loft apartment shared by five married men for their secret liaisons prompts them to suspect each other of the crime; alternately gripping and implausible, The Loft is a modern day cautionary tale that loses credibility with its solution then recovers with a great twist, but still has the air of a thriller that its writer never quite got to grips with.

Loft, The

Unfinished Business (2015) / D: Ken Scott / 91m

Cast: Vince Vaughn, Tom Wilkinson, Dave Franco, Sienna Miller, Nick Frost, James Marsden, June Diane Raphael, Britton Sear, Ella Anderson, Uwe Ochsenknecht

Rating: 5/10 – Swarf salesman Dan Trunkman (Vaughn) has to overcome all sorts of obstacles to land the contract that will save his fledgling company from going under, including a visit to a Berlin gay bar; a bit of a strange fish, Unfinished Business suffers from being two separate movies joined at the hip: one a raucous comedy, the other a thoughtful study of bullying, but together they don’t make for a cohesive whole, and it’s yet another movie where Vaughn coasts along on former glories.

Unfinished Business

Kung Fury (2015)

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Kung Fury

D: David Sandberg / 31m

Cast: David Sandberg, Jorma Taccone, Leopold Nilsson, Steven Chew, Andreas Cahling, Erik Hörnqvist, Eleni Young, Helene Ahlson, Per-Henrik Arvidius, Eos Karlsson, David Hasselhoff

1985, Miami. When an arcade machine turns killer robot, there’s only one man for the police call on: Kung Fury! Destroying the robot proves easy for the Chosen One who was once just an ordinary cop. While chasing down a ninja (Karlsson) with his partner, Dragon (Chew), he was struck by lightning… and bitten by a cobra. From then on, and in line with an ancient prophecy, he became Kung Fury, the master of all kung fu, and the greatest crime fighter in the world.

Chewed out by his chief (Arvidius) over the amount of destruction Fury caused in disposing of the robot, he’s alarmed to find he’s got to work with a new partner, Triceracop (Hörnqvist). Refusing the idea point blank, Fury quits. When he learns that Adolf Hitler has travelled from the past to challenge Kung Fury’s position as the Chosen One, he decides there’s only one thing he can do: travel back to Nazi Germany and kill Hitler. With the help of Hackerman (Nilsson), Fury travels back in time, but instead of arriving in the 1940’s he ends up facing a laser raptor in the time of the Vikings. He also meets two Viking women, Barbarianna (Young), and Katana (Ahlson); when he tells them of his dilemma, they introduce him to Thor, the God of Thunder. Thor uses his hammer, Mjolnir, to create a time portal that will take Fury forward to Nazi Germany.

When he arrives, he crashes a rally being given by Hitler and proceeds to take on the assembled Nazi soldiers. Using his kung fu powers he dispatches them with ease, but when Hitler unloads with a machine gun, not even Kung Fury can survive the hail of bullets… or can he?

Kung Fury - scene

Part-funded by Kickstarter contributions, Kung Fury is an absolute blast, a knowing homage/pastiche of Eighties action and cop movies that goes to extreme lengths to entertain its target audience – and succeeds with a great deal of low budget panache. In realising that its budget required a novel approach to the material (written and directed by Swedish filmmaker Sandberg), the movie has been fashioned to look like a degraded copy of an Eighties video release. This allows the movie to hide a variety of problems such as Ahlson’s having replaced Joanna Häggblom, who filmed the scene where Katana summons Thor for the movie’s trailer. With the same footage being used in the completed short, visual scratches and distortion effects are used to hide the change in actress. In addition, the whole visual look of Kung Fury, from its softened colour palette and grainy film stock effect, gives it a pleasing retro feel that adds to the overall result.

The actual storyline is peppered with some of the craziest visual gags you’re likely to see for some time to come, as Sandberg challenges his special effects team in ways that seem impossible to complete on such a small budget: just $630,019. With digital effects, composite effects, model work, and a shed load of green screen work, Sandberg has made a movie that packs more into thirty-one minutes than some movies pack into two hours. Rampaging killer arcade machines, explosions, fight scenes, exploding heads, a giant Norse god, a talking dinosaur, Viking warrior women (with high-tech weapons), time travel, cars being tossed around like toys, gratuitous violence, a giant metal eagle, and Hitler as the Kung Führer – all this and more Sandberg manages to include in his movie, and every insane minute of it is more fun than fans of this twisted kind of thing could ever hope for.

Kung Fury‘s bizarre world is the distillation of every Eighties action cliché imaginable, from Fury being given a tongue lashing over the damage to the city he’s caused, to the absurd computations of Hackerman regarding time travel, to every macho pose that Fury strikes, all the way to Sandberg growling his lines like he gargles with gravel. There are scowling close ups, a portrayal of Hitler that veers between megalomania and whimsy, and in a great cameo, David Hasselhoff as the computer in Fury’s car, the Hoff9000 (he also gets to sing the movie’s theme tune, True Survivor).

It’s a fast, furious, absurdly entertaining fun ride, complete with an animated sequence two thirds of the way through, as well as an epilogue that sets up either a sequel or a full-length feature (either would be welcome). It’s not a movie, though, that will impress the serious cinéaste and is definitely – and defiantly – aimed at the type of movie goer who loves Chuck Norris, movies like Cobra (1986), and recent outings such as Iron Sky (2012). It’s a potent mix, full of WtF? moments, and as crazy funny (or funny crazy) as you’re ever likely to see, the cinematic equivalent of wading naked through a sea of jellyfish. Sandberg is to be congratulated for getting his project off the ground, and for getting it as far the Cannes Film Festival and since its upload to YouTube, an astonishing eight million plus views.

Rating: 8/10 – a few unnecessarily cheesy moments aside, Kung Fury is nothing short of astounding; with its cast and crew judging everything else perfectly, this is one movie that defies all logic by being so (deliberately) bad it’s brilliant.

Barely Lethal (2015)

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Barely Lethal

D: Kyle Newman / 96m

Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Samuel L. Jackson, Sophie Turner, Jessica Alba, Dove Cameron, Toby Sebastian, Thomas Mann, Rachael Harris, Jaime King, Dan Fogler, Steve-O, Gabriel Basso, Rob Huebel, Jason Ian Drucker

Sixteen year old Agent 83 (Steinfeld) works for a top secret organisation called Prescott that adopts orphaned girls and trains them to be assassins. But she yearns for a more ordinary, regular life, glimpses of which she gets when on her missions. When a plan to capture wanted terrorist Victoria Knox (Alba) leaves Agent 83 missing presumed dead, she takes the opportunity to live a normal life. She changes her name to Megan Walsh, invents a back story for herself and enrols herself in a foreign student exchange programme that sees her living with the Larsons – mum (Harris), daughter Liz (Cameron), and son Parker (Drucker) – and attending high school.

Fitting in, though, proves harder than she’d imagined. Despite doing her research, Megan finds average life more demanding, and confusing, than anything she’s encountered before. With Liz wanting nothing to do with her, and her faux-Canadian background doing her no favours, it’s not until the intervention of high school heart-throb and teen singing sensation Cash Fenton (Sebastian) that Megan begins to be accepted. Megan develops an immediate crush on Cash, but she already has an admirer in tech-geek Roger Marcus (Mann). Having been tricked into applying for the role of football team mascot – and getting it – Megan gains true acceptance when she takes out three would-be kidnappers of the team mascot, a traditional prank foiled by Megan’s “special set of skills”.

The resulting video goes viral and leads to her being found by her instructor at Prescott, Hardman (Jackson). Along with fellow Prescott agent Pedro (Steve-O), Hardman interrogates Megan, believing she’s working for someone else. But when it becomes clear she just wants to lead a normal life, Hardman tells her she only has time to wrap things up before coming back to Prescott. Later, at a party where she’s looking forward to hooking up with Cash, she finds Agent 84 (Turner), aka Heather, in attendance. Annoyed that Hardman would use Heather to keep an eye on her, Megan is further annoyed when Heather makes a play for Cash.

Another meeting with Hardman reveals that Knox has escaped and will no doubt be looking to catch up with Megan and kill her. Despite his offer of protection if she comes back to Prescott, Megan refuses to leave her new home, and begins to take steps to ensure that the Larsons remain safe. And at the upcoming Homecoming dance, she hopes to finally land Cash as her boyfriend, though she has begun to have conflicting feelings for Roger. With all this going on, Megan has to fall back on her training in order to get through it all, and maintain her new lifestyle.

Barely Lethal - scene

The idea of a teen assassin dealing with the pitfalls of high school is one that could have given new meaning to the phrase “mean girls”, but here it’s the starting point for an extremely lightweight, by-the-numbers movie that is pleasantly assembled, but astoundingly hollow at the same time. By bringing in such a talented cast, Barely Lethal (not the best pun for a movie, either), may give the interested viewer the impression that the movie is going to be better than it actually is. But in the hands of director Newman (whose previous feature, Fanboys (2009), was a surprise pleasure) and writer John D’Arco, the movie is one that struggles to maintain an even tone, and squanders many of its chances to layer its basic premise with appropriate levels of irony.

The movie makes no effort to avoid or subvert the standard tropes of high school movies, and instead embraces them wholeheartedly without doing anything new with them. This leaves the movie looking and feeling like any other generic high school movie and even the introduction of Megan and her special skill set doesn’t hamper or redefine it. This level of familiarity works against the movie and though Steinfeld et al. waltz through it all with confidence, for them it must have been like the acting equivalent of treading water. Even Jackson and Alba can’t do much with characters that scream “simple movie stereotype”. With every character and situation proving lacklustre as a result, the movie never really manages to take off and become as enjoyable as it should be.

The humour in the movie is also quite forced, from the youngest Prescott recruits being called “grandma” when their driving skills don’t come up to scratch, to Megan’s first day outfit, to creepy teacher Mr Drumm (Fogler) and his stalking of Cash, to Roger’s even creepier father (Huebel) whose conversation is almost entirely inappropriate – none of it is as funny as it probably seemed at the time of filming, and even with the best efforts of the cast. Newman’s direction doesn’t help either, as each development in the script is allowed to play out with little emphasis on the drama involved, or what reaction it provokes in the characters, and the humour doesn’t leaven things either.

As the girl who’s more comfortable deciphering weapons schematics than the pitfalls of high school life, Steinfeld is an engaging presence but settles for doing just enough to satisfy the demands of the script. The same is true of Turner, who pouts her way through the movie as Megan’s chief rival, and Alba, playing an impression of a caricature of a stereotype as the villainous Knox. Mann emerges relatively unscathed by the experience, and Jackson is predictably hard-nosed (but with a heart of gold), but by and large the performances are as blandly likeable as the material. And the whole thing is rounded off by the kind of soundtrack selections that attempt to mirror the on screen action for emotion but lack any real nuance.

Rating: 4/10 – a missed opportunity, Barely Lethal is so humdrum it should be called Barely Lethargic; with a lack of flair behind the camera allied to a below-par script, the movie sinks under the weight of its own low expectations and despite an opening sequence that passes muster, never amounts to much more than being acceptable.

Top 10 Best Film Oscar Winners at the Box Office

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With the Oscars hyped to the point where the recipient of each year’s Best Film award is regarded as the best movie of the preceding year, it’s interesting to see that most Best Films of the last twenty-five years do reap the benefits of winning one of those shiny gold statuettes – the exceptions being Crash (2005) and The Hurt Locker (2009). These two have failed to crack the $100,000,000 million mark (in fact The Hurt Locker hasn’t even cracked the $50,000,000 million mark), a surprising outcome considering the quality of both movies.

For every other movie it’s been a tale of critical kudos and box office glory. Here then are the top 10 Best Film Oscar winners of the past twenty-five years in terms of international box office returns. But before you start scrolling down, stop for a moment and try and pick the movies you think are in the list (a clue: the top two are incredibly easy to guess). Whatever ten movies you come up with, it’s likely there’ll be one or two that will surprise you.

NOTE: All figures are courtesy of the good folks at boxofficemojo.com.

10 – A Beautiful Mind (2001) – $313,542,341

Ron Howard’s biopic of the late John Nash Jr featured a sterling performance from Russell Crowe, but it’s story of mental illness and a central character whose genius with mathematics may have depended on said same illness was heavily dependent on some narrative trickery and a visual approach that did its best to mirror the conflict going on inside Nash’s mind. That said, the movie is absorbing and doesn’t try to treat Nash with unnecessary sympathy, a rare thing indeed when the movies try to deal with real life disabilities.

A Beautiful Mind

9 – Schindler’s List (1993) – $321,306,305

Despite being best known (still) for his more populist movies, Steven Spielberg’s examination of the nature of heroism in the face of unspeakable evil (memorably incarnated by Ralph Fiennes) is still the director’s most affecting movie, and on many levels his best. Shot in black and white to heighten the horrific nature of the atrocities carried out by the Nazis, this is one of the few movies that can burrow under your skin and stay there for days afterward.

Schindler's List

8 – American Beauty (1999) – $356,296,601

It’s hard to think of now, but this was Sam Mendes’ first movie – and what a debut! Featuring career best performances from all concerned, writer Alan Ball’s excoriating dissection of American suburban life still has the power to astound that it had on its first release. With some of the most lyrical and inventive visual moments of any movie – who can forget those falling rose petals, or that carrier bag? – this is a modern classic pure and simple.

American Beauty

7 – Slumdog Millionaire (2008) – $377,910,544

Danny Boyle’s adaptation of the novel by Vikas Swarup was a surprise winner at the Oscars, but it’s tale of perseverance against seemingly overwhelming odds, and the pursuit of love, is so well constructed and acted by its young cast that it can be forgiven for the occasional lapse into sentimentality. With its infectious score courtesy of A.R. Rahman, and authentic Mumbai locations, it’s a feelgood movie that can be enjoyed over and over again.

Slumdog Millionaire

6 – The King’s Speech (2010) – $414,211,549

There were other, better movies up for the Best Film Oscar in 2011 – The Social Network (2010) and Black Swan (2010) to name but two – but it was this recounting of an Australian speech therapist’s efforts to enable the then King of England, George VI, to speak in public despite his stutter that took the honours. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are both excellent, and the scenes between them are masterclasses in screen acting, but the movie’s emotional core is thrust too often into the spotlight for any subtlety to maintain its hold.

King's Speech, The

5 – Dances With Wolves (1990) – $424,208,848

Famously beating GoodFellas (1990) (which still gets some people’s backs up even now), what was considered to be Kevin Costner’s folly is in actual fact a very good movie, and one that rewards on repeat viewings. Best seen in its extended, four hour cut, this is still the best representation of the way of life of the American Indian yet committed to screen, and a valedictory salute to a culture that has been subsumed by greed and corruption.

Dances With Wolves

4 – Gladiator (2000) – $457,640,427

The picture that reintroduced the phrase sword and sandals back into the movie lexicon, Ridley Scott’s bold reimagining of Ancient Rome and the glories of the Coliseum remains an extraordinary visual experience. With yet another commanding performance from Russell Crowe, this big budget homage to the epics of the Fifties and Sixties boasts a stand out sequence in the recreation of the Battle of Carthage, superb photography by John Mathieson, and is endlessly thrilling.

Gladiator

3 – Forrest Gump (1994) – $677,945,399

Twenty-one years on and Robert Zemeckis’ finest hour still has the ability to bewitch and amuse and make viewers gratefully sad as Mrs Gump’s boy takes us on a tour of American 20th century history, and his search for his one true love. Tom Hanks deservedly won an Oscar for his portrayal of Forrest Gump, but there are plenty of other great performances to be savoured, as well as – for then – some amazing special effects work.

Forrest Gump

2 – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) – $1,119,929,521

The conclusion to Peter Jackson’s mammoth adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy is the ne plus ultra of fantasy movie making. Sprawling and yet detailed, expansive and yet intimate, this is breathtaking in its scope and the confidence Jackson, his crew and his cast have in what they’re doing and what they’ve achieved. Too many endings? Who cares, when they give you the chance to stay just a little bit longer in Middle Earth?

Lord of the Rings:Return of the King (2003) Elijah Wood Credit:New Line Cinema/Courtesy Neal Peters Collection

1 – Titanic (1997) – $2,186,772,302

No surprises here, with James Cameron’s brash, epic retelling of the most famous maritime disaster in history an object lesson in marrying a somewhat tepid romance with cutting edge special effects, and all in the service of extreme verisimilitude. Still, whatever your view on the movie as a whole, what can’t be denied is the sheer scale of the enterprise, the incredible momentum built up once the ship strikes the iceberg, and Cameron’s overwhelming sense of spectacle.

TITANIC 3D

Trailer – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

A touching, warm-hearted drama with a strong indie sensibility, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was a big hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize. From the trailer you can see that it has a definite comedic approach to offset the dramatic elements, and it’s this combination that makes it look a worthwhile watch. With a cast that includes Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon, Jon Bernthal, and Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler and Olivia Cooke as the title characters, this could well prove to be a refreshing alternative to all the action oriented blockbusters hitting our screens in 2015.

Mini-Review: Good Kill (2014)

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Good Kill

D: Andrew Niccol / 102m

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Bruce Greenwood, Zoë Kravitz, January Jones, Jake Abel, Dylan Kenin, Peter Coyote

With pilots no longer needed to fly as many missions thanks to the US Air Force’s reliance on drones, Major Thomas Egan (Hawke) is stuck in a dead-end post as a drone pilot at a base outside Las Vegas. Under the command of Lt. Colonel Jack Johns (Greenwood), Egan is disillusioned with his new role and wants to get back to real flying. His frustration begins to affect his marriage to Molly (Jones), and he doesn’t socialise much with his colleagues, newbie Airman Vera Suarez (Kravitz), M.I.C. Joseph Zimmer (Abel), and Capt. Ed Christie (Kenin). Targeting confirmed terrorists and Taliban members, Egan kills by remote control, and feels equally as remote from what’s happening thousands of miles away.

His role takes an unexpected turn when his unit is asked to work with the CIA in targeting and killing suspected terrorists and/or sympathisers, or anyone regarded as a potential threat to US security – but in Yemen, a country that the US isn’t at war with. When several drone strikes result in a “double tap” – the subsequent targeting and killing of anyone who goes to the aid of those injured in the first bombing – Egan, appalled by this development, begins to question the Air Force’s role in working with the CIA, and the ethics involved. Unable to influence the CIA’s thinking he attempts to thwart their plans by sabotaging the drone strikes, but when he’s found out it puts his whole future, including his marriage, in jeopardy.

Good Kill - scene

Set in 2010, at the height of the US’s use of drones in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries, Good Kill is another thought-provoking drama from writer/director Niccol. An astute observation of the ways in which technology is making modern warfare a matter of distance rather than engagement, the movie paints a chilling portrait of the callous approach to collateral damage that appears endemic in US thinking. By making Egan an unwitting – and unwilling – victim of abhorrent government policies, the movie concisely and intelligently shows the appalling effect such a responsibility can have on an individual.

Hawke gives one of his best performances outside of the Before… movies, his haunted features capturing the conflict going on inside him with studied precision. As he wrestles with his need to follow orders and his growing sense of outrage and shame at what he’s required to do, Hawke’s portrayal of Egan grounds the movie even further than the verisimilitude achieved by Niccol’s artful script. With great supporting turns from Greenwood and Kravitz, Good Kill tells its story with a great deal of subtlety and understanding of the issues involved. The Las Vegas backdrop serves to heighten the insanity of bombing people based on limited intelligence information, and the movie is immaculately shot by Amir Mokri. Niccol makes only two missteps: the character of Molly Egan, a more casually written role that Jones has trouble fleshing out, and the ending, which is too pat, but these aspects aside, the movie is a solid, engrossing thriller that shines a revealing light on yet another part of US foreign policy that ignores due process.

Rating: 8/10 – yet another contemporary, relevant drama from Niccol, Good Kill shows an unflinching, and uncompromising, approach to the material; with Hawke on top form, the human element is given a better focus than usual, and the movie persuasively challenges the idea that remote killing is less distasteful than killing someone in person.

Like Sunday, Like Rain (2014)

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Like Sunday Like Rain

D: Frank Whaley / 104m

Cast: Leighton Meester, Julian Shatkin, Billie Joe Armstrong, Debra Messing, Olga Merediz, J. Smith-Cameron, James McCaffrey, Sammy Pignalosa

Eleanor (Meester) is a twenty-three year old waitress whose relationship with aspiring musician Dennis (Armstrong) comes to an end when he fails yet again to return home one night from a gig. Reggie (Shatkin) is a twelve year old child prodigy whose advanced intellect keeps him remote from everyone around him. When an argument with Dennis at her place of work leads to Eleanor losing her job, a friend of hers recommends signing up with an agency. When she does she’s told about a job as a nanny that requires a same day start. Interviewed and hired by Reggie’s mother, Barbara (Messing), the job involves making sure Reggie gets to and from school and that he eats while Barbara is away for the next two months.

Eleanor soon finds that Reggie has his own unique way of looking at the world, and her expectations are swept aside as Reggie refuses to go to camp as planned and she begins to get to know someone who believes that “art as a language is dead”. Reggie and Eleanor spend time in the park, watching movies, and eating out, and as time goes by, the two grow closer, while Dennis refuses to accept that his relationship with Eleanor is over. One night though, Eleanor receives a call from her uncle Dale (McCaffrey) telling her that her father is seriously ill in hospital. She tells Reggie that she has to leave for a couple of days, but rather than be left in the care of someone he doesn’t know, Reggie offers to go with her.

They travel to Eleanor’s home town where they receive a less than hospitable welcome from Eleanor’s mother (Smith-Cameron). They switch to a motel where Eleanor reveals that she too has a musical talent (Reggie is a gifted cellist and composer), and that she once got into Juilliard but they couldn’t give her a full scholarship. Reggie decides that he’ll include a part of the cornet (Eleanor’s instrument) in the composition he’s written called Like Sunday, Like Rain. At the hospital, Eleanor learns that no one has been in to see her father; when she goes back home it leads to a row that has her vowing never to return. With her job looking after Reggie coming to an end, and with her bridges burnt at home, Eleanor now has to plan for her immediate future, a future that means leaving Reggie behind…

Like Sunday Like Rain - scene

The fourth feature from writer/director/actor Whaley, Like Sunday, Like Rain is a movie in which not a lot happens in terms of plot or even in dramatic terms, but which explores the dynamics of its central characters’ relationship with a great deal of charm and skill. As Eleanor and Reggie get to know each other – and we get to know them – the emotional differences between them become blurred, and various connections become apparent. It’s a delicate movie in many ways, with Whaley taking the time to explore Eleanor and Reggie’s personalities in deceptively fine detail, and in the process, allowing their eventual bond to become entirely believable.

As a result of ending her relationship with Dennis, Eleanor is both jobless and homeless, and at a crossroads in her life. Thanks to Meester’s intuitive, adept portrayal, Eleanor’s predicament is given a realistically poignant feel further enhanced by the combined expressions of resignation and frustration she evinces. It’s a subtler performance than it seems at first, and Meester shines throughout, building layer upon layer of resilience and determination and allowing Eleanor the opportunity to move forward with her life.

But this is Shatkin’s movie pure and simple, his performance another of those given by a child actor that is so perfectly gauged and delivered it puts most adult actors and actresses to shame (it’s a good job that Meester is a match for him). It’s a showy role – just watch Reggie’s response to his friend Raj’s crossword clue – but Shatkin is more than up to the task, and steals almost every scene he’s in, whether it’s questioning the maid, Esa (Merediz), as to the content of his meals, or quoting the sad fate of the artist Modigliani. Reggie’s over-confidence and child prodigy status hides a deep-rooted vulnerability, and Shatkin is excellent at showing the emotionally scared young boy hidden beneath the academic outer shell. His expression when Eleanor announces she has to leave to visit her father is a perfect display of need and understanding at war with each other.

Alas, where Whaley puts so much time and effort into making Eleanor and Reggie as credible as characters as he possibly can, the same can’t be said for Barbara and Dennis. Barbara is the stereotypical socialite so wrapped up in her own world she can’t be bothered to remember Eleanor’s name two minutes after she’s heard it. It’s a mannered, brittle performance by Messing, and amounts to barely ten minutes of screen time as she’s shuffled off to China to make way for Eleanor and Reggie to begin bonding. As Dennis, a musician with delusions of adequacy, Armstrong is a better singer than he is an actor, and Whaley doesn’t really do anything with the character other than to make him consistently whiny and annoying. Faced with such a limited characterisation, Armstrong doesn’t have the experience to make any more of the role, and consequently he’s the weakest link in the movie.

By concentrating on the subtle and meaningful ways in which two people, despite the gap in their ages and experiences of life, can develop a friendship that’s mutually beneficial and rewarding, Whaley makes Like Sunday, Like Rain a pleasure to watch despite its more dramatic turn when Eleanor goes home. This section of the movie feels a little rushed, as Eleanor’s differences with her family are brought to the fore in what are very broad strokes. But the ending restores the tone and the simplicity of what’s gone before, and the movie, already a pleasure to be a part of, concludes on a perfect note of synchronicity.

Rating: 8/10 – a slow-moving, leisurely paced movie that draws in the viewer and makes them care about its two central characters, Like Sunday, Like Rain is a small-scale movie that can be treasured time and time again; with terrific performances from Meester and Shatkin, and a nuanced script from Whaley, it’s a winning combination that rewards throughout.

Oh! the Horror! – Evangeline (2013) and The Black Dahlia Haunting (2012)

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Evangeline

D: Karen Lam / 83m

Cast: Kat de Lieva, Richard Harmon, Mayumi Yoshida, David Lewis, Kelvin Redvers, John Shaw, Nelson Leis, Dejan Loyola, Madison Smith, Anthony Shim

College student Evangeline Pullman (de Lieva) – known as Eva – shares a dorm room with fellow student Shannon (Yoshida). When they and another college friend attend a frat party, Eva comes to the attention of frat leader Michael Konner (Harmon). Meanwhile, Mr K (Lewis), a teacher at another school is abducting and murdering teenage girls and dumping their bodies in the nearby forest. One weekend, Eva finds herself alone at the college and runs into Konner. He takes her to his dad’s hunting lodge, where he drugs her. When she wakes, she ends up being chased by Konner and two of his friends (Loyola, Smith). They catch her and after savagely beating her, Eva is strangled and left for dead.

Eva is found by a couple of vagrants living in the forest, Billy (Redvers) and Jim (Shaw). They nurse her back to health, unaware that she is becoming possessed by a forest demon. When she’s threatened by Dee (Leis), another vagrant, she runs off and is picked up by Mr K. He takes her back into the forest, but his attempt to kill Eva leads to the demon taking full control of her and setting her on a course of revenge against Konner and his cronies.

Evangeline - scene

While Evangeline has a few good ideas dotted amongst its more risible moments, and Lam shows a certain amount of visual flair, this particular demonic revenge outing is hamstrung by gaping plot holes, trite dialogue, shallow characterisations, and amongst the supporting cast, some very poor performances. Viewers who are familiar with this type of horror movie will be frustrated by Lam’s decisions as a writer, and further dismayed by the way in which the scenes of Eva’s revenge are marred by a myriad of bizarre editing choices.

There’s an Eighties feel to the movie that leaves the viewer thinking of other, better movies from the period, and the obvious budgetary restraints make it seem as if the bulk of the movie was filmed in a variety of basement rooms. With no one – not even Eva – to sympathise with, the movie has less to offer than most and never really succeeds in getting across the horror of its main character’s troubles. There’s a curiously dispassionate tone used throughout, as if everything is being viewed from a safe distance, even when Eva is in peril or taking her revenge.

Rating: 3/10 – a few inspired moments aside, Evangeline fails to capitalise on its basic premise and takes too many narrative shortcuts in telling its story; with a hint of Japanese folklore to give credibility to the idea of a forest demon, the movie doesn’t make much of this approach either.

Black Dahlia Haunting, The

D: Brandon Slagle / 80m

Cast: Devanny Pinn, Britt Griffith, Noah Dahl, Alexis Iacono, Cleve Hall, Brandon Slagle, Jessica Cameron

Holly Jenson (Pinn) travels to Los Angeles in the wake of her step-brother, Tyler (Dahl), having killed their father and his mother. What makes the case unusual is that Tyler is blind. Currently under the care and supervision of Dr Brian Owen (Griffith), Tyler also draws pictures of a mysterious woman who Dr Owen recognises as Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia murder victim from 1947. Holly has to wait for the DA’s office to allow her to see Tyler, and while she does she finds herself wandering around LA until she loses her way. She asks a woman for directions, but the woman (Iacono) talks inaudibly to herself.

Tyler proves uncooperative and tells Holly to go. At her hotel room she takes a shower and is possessed by the spirit of Elizabeth Short (the woman she saw on the street). Holly is forced to visit a cave in the desert where Elizabeth’s killer (Hall) disposed of her clothes, her blood and the knives he used. Then she visits the home of Dr Owen and waits for him to arrive, now aware – as Tyler is as well – of the connection between the doctor and the Black Dahlia murder over sixty years before.

Black Dahlia Haunting, The - scene

By taking the real life murder of Elizabeth Short as the basis for its plot, The Black Dahlia Haunting makes a poor fist of squeezing out a revenge story, using muddled coincidences and ill thought out connections to shepherd the idea of Short reaching out from beyond the grave and gaining retribution through the murderous actions of two half-siblings. It’s a poor movie that proceeds at a pedestrian pace, features several scenes that don’t advance the plot or add depth to the characters, and feels like a short movie stretched beyond its limits.

It doesn’t help that the performances seem to have been crafted without the benefit of rehearsals, and that some lines of dialogue sound mannered and/or mis-emphasised. Pinn makes Holly unlikeable from the start, while Griffith is such a dull presence it seems as if the scenes he’s in go on far longer than any of the ones he isn’t in. As the vengeful spirit of Elizabeth Short, Iacono has the more varied role, and can be seen in flashbacks to 1947 talking with a young Norma Jean Baker (Cameron), or being tortured by her killer. But ultimately, these don’t add anything to the story, and merely pad out the already short running time. Writer/director Slagle – who gives himself a secondary role as a young man who finds one of the knives the killer used – strives for relevance but misses by a mile, and never overcomes the sheer implausibility of his screenplay.

Rating: 3/10 – a neat premise wasted by poor execution, The Black Dahlia Haunting has little to recommend it beyond its real life basis; anyone with a keen interest in Elizabeth Short and her tragic murder would do well to avoid this completely.

Hartenstraat (2014)

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Hartenstraat

aka Heart Street

D: Sanne Vogel / 86m

Cast: Marwan Kenzari, Bracha van Doesburgh, Nadia Koetje, Benja Bruijning, Tygo Gernandt, Egbert-Jan Weeber, Sieger Sloot, Susan Visser, Kitty Courbois, Frits Lambrechts, Georgina Verbaan, Gigi Ravelli, Terence Schreurs, Jan Koolijman, Stacey Rookhuizen

Daan (Kenzari) owns a delicatessen in Amsterdam’s Hartenstraat, where he lives with his eight year old daughter, Saar (Koetje). He and Saar’s mother, Inge (Rookhuizen), are divorced, and Saar wishes that Daan could find someone else to marry and be happy again. But Daan is too busy looking after Saar and his business to have time for dating – or so he tells himself. Meanwhile, two doors along, a new fashion shop is opened by Katje (van Doesburgh), a no-nonsense designer who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. When she and Daan first meet it’s not a happy encounter for either of them, and a mutual dislike is born.

To get Daan back into the dating arena, his friend Bas (Gernandt) sets him up on an Internet dating website called Relationship Planet. Soon, Daan is corresponding with several interested women and setting up dates so he can meet them. His luck, however, appears to desert him with every date, as each woman he meets proves undesirable for one reason or another, until he meets Mara (Verbaan). But Mara has her own issues: a lack of anger management, and an overly aggressive approach to sex. When Daan doesn’t want to see her again she makes a scene in the street that is witnessed by Katje.

On the evening of the opening of Katje’s shop she’s surprised to see Daan providing the catering. They spar for the entire evening, but when she learns that he’s using Relationship Planet it sparks her interest. She pretends to be someone else and starts an online relationship with him. At first it’s meant as a joke, a way of amusing herself at Daan’s (unknowing) expense. But as they get to know each other, both begin to fall for the other. And while they continue to have an uneasy relationship offline, Saar has a part in easing the animosity they share when Katje designs a swan dress for her to wear at a national schools talk competition.

Eventually, Katje’s online alter ego plucks up the courage to agree to meet Daan, but when he learns she is the woman he has fallen in love with, he is angry at her duplicity and wants nothing further to do with her. Even when she later apologises to him, he refuses to forgive her. And then Saar goes missing on the morning of the competition…

Hartenstraat - scene

Hartenstraat is a movie that’s all about relationships: broken ones – Daan and Inge; prospective ones – Daan and Mara; unfulfilling ones – Katje and self-absorbed boyfriend Thomas (Bruijning); established ones – gay coffee shop owners Jacob (Sloot) and Rein (Weeber); burgeoning ones – Katje’s mother, Bep (Courbois) and Daan’s elderly friend Aart (Lambrechts); ambivalent ones – Daan and Katje; and anonymous ones – Daan and Katje’s online alter ego. Even Saar has her problems, telling her father she can’t choose between two boys at school. With all these varied relationships taking up so much of the movie’s running time, you could be forgiven that Hartenstraat would be a somewhat overly dramatic feature with maybe some acerbic things to say about the nature of love. But you’d be wrong.

Instead, the movie is an enjoyable, light-hearted look at the trials and tribulations, expectations and disappointments, hopes and fears, associated with contemporary relationships. It makes its points with a great deal of charm and steers away from the kind of plot contrivances that mar many other romantic comedies (even if the outcome is completely predictable from the start). It doesn’t have an axe to grind, it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and it features a clutch of winning performances that are ably directed by Vogel from Judith Goudsmit’s quirky screenplay.

But with all the attendant relationships given sufficient emphasis and focus, it’s still the connection between Daan and Katje that provides the most satisfaction. As played by Kenzari and van Doesburgh, the ways in which the pair spark off each other are delivered with such a sense of mutual fun that it’s hard not to be won over by them both (it helps that there’s a definite chemistry between them). Kenzari is the kind of actor whose soulful expression can speak volumes, while van Doesburgh has a subtle screen presence that the camera picks up on in every scene she’s in. As Daan and Katje circle round their feelings for each other, both actors take the opportunity to make the relationship entirely believable.

They’re supported by a talented cast of character actors led by Gernandt as the borderline obnoxious ladies’ man Bas (aka the Choker), and Verbaan as the hilariously psychotic Mara (who tells Daan at one point he needs “destroying”). Koetje is appropriately winsome as Saar; Weeber and Sloot flesh out Jacob and Rein to the extent that they’re not the stereotypical gay couple they first seem to be; and as Katje’s less than intellectual assistants, Schreurs and Ravelli make for an appealingly funny double act.

Indeed, the movie’s sense of humour is one of its plusses, a lot of it arising from the characters themselves and their personalities, while the dialogue is dotted with moments of genuine wit and some glorious put-downs. Vogel – who also appears as Daan’s first date, Annabel – keeps things from getting too dramatic (which is to the movie’s advantage) and uses this to seduce the viewer into becoming invested in the various relationships and their outcomes. She’s aided by Ezra Reverda’s sterling camerawork, and a clever opening title sequence by Derk Elshof, Benno Nieuwstraten and Sietse van den Broek that features cast and crew names as part of the street’s window displays.

Rating: 8/10 – although there are times when Hartenstraat seems impossibly lightweight and seems to invite ridicule for its approach to its own storyline, nevertheless it’s a carefree, hugely enjoyable piece of “fluff”; full to the brim with moments that bring a smile to the viewer’s face, it’s the very epitome of a pleasant distraction.

The Age of Adaline (2015)

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Age of Adaline, The

D: Lee Toland Krieger / 107m

Cast: Blake Lively, Michiel Huisman, Harrison Ford, Ellen Burstyn, Kathy Baker, Amanda Crew, Linda Boyd, Hugh Ross, Anthony Ingruber

On New Year’s Eve 2014, Jennifer Larson (Lively) purchases a set of fake I.D.’s before heading off to work at a library’s archive office. There she’s given a collection of old newsreels that need to be digitised. She begins viewing them, and as the footage unfolds, Jennifer remembers her life, one that began on New Year’s Day 1908 when she was born Adaline Bowman. She remembers getting married and having a child, and then her husband dying. And she remembers the fateful trip that saw her spin off the road during a freak snowstorm and plunge into a freezing river – where she died – and the lightning strike that struck her and revived her, causing her to remain twenty-nine from that day onward.

That night she attends a New Year’s Eve party, where she attracts the attention of a handsome man called Ellis (Huisman), who shares an elevator ride with her; she rebuffs his advances. But she is surprised to find him turn off at her office the next day in the guise of a generous benefactor. He asks her out on a date, which she refuses. In retaliation Ellis tells her he’ll withdraw his donation if she doesn’t. This time she agrees and he manages to convince her to see him again; when she does she stays over at his apartment. Afterwards, and despite Ellis’s best intentions, she avoids his calls and is cold to him when they meet in the street.

Eventually, Jennifer relents and agrees to see him again. When they do he asks her to come with him for the weekend to help celebrate his parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary. When they arrive, Ellis’s father, William (Ford) is shocked by her resemblance to a woman he met in England in the Sixties, a woman he knew as Adaline Bowman. Jennifer pretends that Adaline was her mother. William is unable to get over how much she looks like the woman he knew, but everyone else accepts the coincidence. The next day, Jennifer and William are talking when he notices a scar on her left hand that matches one Adaline had, and which was caused while they were hiking together. He confronts her, but even though he does his best to reassure her, she leaves as quickly as she can. A lifetime of hiding her real identity has left Adaline constantly fearful of exposure, and so she aims to disappear yet again, using the fake I.D.’s she’s recently purchased. But as she heads back to her home, and with Ellis chasing after her, another freak bout of snow starts to fall…

Age of Adaline, The - scene

At the New Year’s Eve party, a young man tries out an old pick-up line on Adaline. When he realises she’s heard it before, she confirms it by saying “Just once, from a Bing Crosby … type.” It’s one of those offhand, slightly clever moments you’d expect from a movie that features a character who’s been around for over a century, but thankfully it’s the only example the movie trots out, settling instead for Adaline being incredibly knowledgeable about world events (and picking up the odd extra language). It’s a restrained approach to material that could have focused more on past events than the modern day romance that rightly takes centre stage.

With Adaline’s past consigned to occasional, yet relevant, flashbacks, and with a narrator (Ross) to act as our guide at equally relevant moments, The Age of Adaline is a romantic drama that grounds its fantasy elements in the everyday and the banal: Adaline keeps a succession of King Charles Spaniels; she works in a library; she worries about her daughter, Flemming (Burstyn), now an old woman considering moving into a retirement community. It’s the attempts Adaline makes to live a normal, ordinary life that makes the movie so easy to believe in, and with Lively’s wonderful performance to back it all up, her predicament so credible.

Which makes the central romance all the more disappointing, as Huisman’s so-good-he-can’t-be-real Ellis is such a perfect partner that aside from Adaline’s initial reservations about seeing him, there’s no drama involved at all. It takes Adaline’s past coming back to haunt her to provide any real drama and that doesn’t arrive until over an hour has passed. Until then it’s all build up, and a fairly pedestrian, nearly superficial build up at that. Thank goodness for Lively, who elevates the material by emphasising the tragedy of Adaline’s life, often just by looking pensive and lonely. There’s a depth of feeling in Lively’s eyes during these moments that helps immensely, and leaves Huisman’s easy smile and carefree physicality looking as if the actor is barely trying. It’s Lively’s movie from start to finish, and the actress takes every opportunity to stamp her authority on the role.

She’s matched by Ford who turns in his best performance in years, the moments when William is remembering Adaline and the time they spent together, showing the character’s vulnerability and emotional honesty in a way that is entirely realistic. The scene where William confronts Adaline is a small master class in screen acting. In support, Burstyn does well as Adaline’s daughter but is required to be too wise on too many occasions for comfort, and Baker is left with the unenviable task of making William’s wife (also Kathy) more than an add-on.

But while the supporting characters pale against the attention given to Adaline, the script by J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz, is never less than absorbing, and keeps the viewer interested, even during those repetitive early scenes where Adaline keeps rejecting Ellis over and over. It scores highly when examining themes of love and loss and sacrifice, and maintains an impassioned tone throughout. Krieger directs with a confidence and a firm control of the material that benefits the more fantastical elements, and evokes a strong sense of time and place in the flashback scenes. He’s aided by often evocative cinematography by David Lanzenberg, laudable costume designs for Adaline through the decades by Angus Strathie, and fluid, assured editing by Melissa Kent. All go together to make the movie a rich, rewarding experience, and one of the finest romantic dramas of recent years.

Rating: 8/10 – an intriguing premise given a stronger outing than expected, The Age of Adaline is a worthy throwback to the “women’s pictures” of the Thirties and Forties but with an appropriately modern sheen; with a superb performance from Lively, this is a movie that, thankfully, has more to it than meets the eye.

Tomorrowland: A World Beyond (2015)

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Tomorrowland

aka Tomorrowland

D: Brad Bird / 130m

Cast: George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Robinson, Pierce Gagnon, Matthew MacCaull

At the 1964 World’s Fair, a boy named Frank Walker (Robinson) takes his latest invention, a jet pack, to the science tent in the hopes of winning a $50 prize. But as his jet pack doesn’t actually work properly, the presiding judge, David Nix (Laurie), tells him to come back when it does. As he leaves he’s approached by a young girl called Athena (Cassidy), who gives him a pin with a bright blue T on it, and tells him to follow her when she gets on one of the rides. When he does he finds himself transported to a strange futuristic world where there are tall, shining buildings, trains and vehicles that travel on air, and a launch site for spaceships. There, his jet pack is adjusted to work properly and he’s accepted as a member of Tomorrowland, a world where the brightest and the best – the geniuses of Earth – have gone to create a utopian world devoid of war, social inequality, famine, natural disasters and greed.

Fifty years later, teenager Casey Newton (Robertson) lives near Cape Canaveral with her dad, Eddie (McGraw), and younger brother Nate (Gagnon). Eddie is an engineer working for NASA, and helping to dismantle the nearby Apollo launch site. Casey “knows how things work”, but is using her skills to delay the site’s demolition. When she’s caught and arrested, she finds a pin with a bright blue T on it in amongst her belongings when she’s released. She touches it and is immediately transported to a wheat field where, in the distance, is a city of tall gleaming spires. She drops the pin and is back in her own world. Unable to convince her father that the pin is special, she looks for information about it online, and learns that there is a store in Texas that will buy them.

She travels there but the store owners, Ursula (Hahn) and Hugo (Key), try to take the pin from her by force. Casey is rescued by Athena, who doesn’t look a day older than when she met Frank. Athena explains a little about Tomorrowland but not enough to fully satisfy Casey’s questions. They travel to a remote farmhouse where Casey is left to meet the owner, a now older Frank Walker (Clooney). When agents from Tomorrowland arrive and try to abduct Casey, Frank and Casey manage to escape, and both are reunited with Athena. From there they head for Paris and the Eiffel Tower, which, aside from being a national monument, is also the launch site for a hidden rocket ship. The ship takes them to Tomorrowland, but when they arrive, the trio find it in ruins, and Nix in charge of everything. And it becomes very clear that our world is on the brink of complete destruction, unless Casey can “fix” it, something that Nix doesn’t want her to do…

Disney's TOMORROWLAND..Casey (Britt Robertson) ..Ph: Film Frame..©Disney 2015

The movie that Bird passed on directing Star Wars Episode VII for, Tomorrowland: A World Beyond arrives with no small amount of hype attached to it, and an appropriately high level of anticipation. And up until we meet Casey it’s exactly the movie we’ve been expecting: a richly detailed, nostalgic look back at a time when the future seemed brighter than ever, and technological miracles were being produced that were poised to make our lives all the better. There’s a wistfulness about these early scenes, and a joy in the discovery of Tomorrowland that is infectious and intoxicating, and Bird and his co-writer Damon Lindelof give us an unforgettable introduction to the unforgettable world they’ve created.

And then it all goes horribly wrong. In placing our world in peril, but with the solution located in Tomorrowland, Bird and Lindelof have managed to come up with one of the murkiest, most unconvincing – or clearly explained – storylines in recent years. So much happens that doesn’t make sense, and so much happens that isn’t followed through, that the movie becomes unwieldy and bogged down by too many scenes that fail to advance the plot or deepen the characters. It’s like being given a box of assorted chocolates, only to find that they all have the same centre. For a movie that touches on so many different aspects and themes – nostalgia, individualism, collectivism, fate, unfulfilled love, the benefits of technology, looking to the future, nihilism, hope, manifest destiny – it develops not into a thrilling adventure that matches the joie de vivre of its opening section, but a tired, downbeat, dystopian odyssey that squeezes the life out of its characters and its plot.

What this leads to is an impending worldwide catastrophe that you just can’t care about, and if filmmakers of the calibre of Bird and Clooney can’t make an audience care about the end of the world then there’s definitely something wrong (although, ironically, the idea fits neatly with Nix’s disparaging remarks about everyone else on Earth). It’s as if the initial idea was settled on, but fleshing it out proved too difficult, so any way the story could be continued was seized upon and no further development took place. There’s no tension, an abstract sense of impending doom, and too much reliance on Athena to bail out Frank and Casey when they get in trouble.

The cast struggle gamely with characters who lack shading and depth, though Cassidy is a minor revelation as Athena, her poise and command of her dialogue helping her performance immeasurably (and showing the others how it should be done). Hahn and Key provide some much needed respite (though too early on) from the drudgery, and Robinson is so cute he shouldn’t be allowed. But it’s still not enough to offset the awkward miscalculations made by Messrs. Bird and Lindelof, and the strangely disaffected tone the movie adopts when it returns to Tomorrowland. However, the movie does have a wonderful sheen to it, Claudio Miranda’s cinematography proving an exquisite treat, his mix of light and colour at the World’s Fair being particularly gratifying. If only as much attention had gone into the script.

Rating: 5/10 – with just enough on display to keep it from being a complete disappointment, Tomorrowland: A World Beyond starts out fresh and engaging and ends like a lame athlete finally crossing the finishing line; Bird directs as if he were absent from the set, and it all has the air of a movie that “will just do for now”.

Home (2015)

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Home

D: Tim Johnson / 94m

Cast: Jim Parsons, Rihanna, Steve Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Matt Jones, Brian Stepanek

Fleeing from their sworn enemy the Gorg, the Boov race – led by Captain Smek (Martin) – arrive on Earth and begin to colonise it, sequestering the human population in various locations around the globe. The Boov are otherwise a peaceful race, and believe they are doing Earth a favour by inhabiting it. One of them, Oh (Parsons), decides to invite everyone to a party at his apartment, but when he sends out his electronic invitation he doesn’t realise that it will be picked up by the Gorg as well. When Captain Smek learns of this, Oh is forced to go on the run.

In a convenience store, Oh runs into Tip (Rihanna) and her cat Pig. Tip is on her own after her mother, Lucy (Lopez), was taken away. She hates the Boov, but when Oh transforms her mother’s car into one that can fly, and he agrees to help her find her mother, she lets him come with her. They fly to Paris to the Boov Command Centre where they learn that Lucy is in Australia. Evading the Boov, they then find themselves under attack from a Gorg ship. They manage to bring it down but their car is damaged in the process. The Gorg ship proves to be a drone, and Oh is able to use a chip from it to get their car going again.

Once in Australia, Tip and Oh discover that the Boov are evacuating to their mothership. Tip wants to find her mother but Oh insists they leave with the rest of the Boov before the Gorg destroy them all. Tip refuses and continues her search for Lucy, while Oh begins to realise that he has to do something to stop the Gorg from killing everyone, Boov and human alike. On the Boov mothership he uses the chip from the drone to place their mothership at a distance from the newly arrived Gorg mothership. This leads to Captain Smek being dismissed from his position as Boov leader, and the honour is given to Oh.

Tip and Lucy are finally reunited, but there’s still the problem of the Gorg mothership which has entered Earth’s atmosphere and is preparing to land outside the Australian camp. Oh has only a short time to find a solution that will save them all, but he finds the answer in the most unlikeliest of places…

Home - scene

Now fully committed to making computer animated movies – their last traditional animated movie was Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003) – Dreamworks now finds itself, perhaps like Pixar, in a very strange position. Each animated movie it releases comes under a great deal of scrutiny, and Home is no different, with the movie being accused of failing to live up to the standards set by the likes of How to Train Your Dragon (2010) or Kung Fu Panda (2008). It’s an invidious position to be in, and in the case of Home, more than a little unfair.

Certainly, the movie’s message that we’re all the same under the skin (even if it is purple) is a well-worn theme in cinema, but here it’s not as hammered home as some other movies, and it’s approach to racial diversity – Tip is the first non-Caucasian lead in an animated movie – as well as its integration of the Boov, who adopt most human lifestyles, is all cleverly done. If it all seems predictable and safe, then that’s because it is. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that though, because the movie does it all with a tremendous amount of verve and eye-popping visual splendour, and is consistently funny throughout, thanks to Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember’s astute adaptation of Adam Rex’s kid-lit novel The True Meaning of Smekday.

Fizzing with a day-glo colour scheme that makes almost every scene glisten and zing, Home creates one of the sweetest on screen relationships seen for some time, as Oh and Tip become friends and realise how strong their bond is. Parsons is excellent as Oh, his vocal tics and mannerisms – some lifted, admittedly, from The Big Bang Theory – a perfect match for the continually puzzled yet curious little Boov, and Rihanna is just as effective as Tip, matching her co-star for emotional expression and displaying a range that may come as a surprise to some viewers. Martin almost steals the show with his turn as the cowardly Captain Smek, the character’s pompous vanity perfectly expressed in every scene he’s in, and while it may not be the most layered performance, it doesn’t have to be. With less screen time, Lopez doesn’t quite register as strongly as Lucy, but again, the relationship between Tip and Oh is the main focus, and not Tip and her mother.

Ably directed by Johnson, Home sets out its stall quickly and efficiently and provides enough entertainment for adults and kids alike. It isn’t a serious movie by any standard, and relies on the charm of its lead characters for most of its running time, but Oh and Tip are delightfully animated and voiced, and make for a great screen partnership. The Boov are a delight as well, the way their bodies change shade or colour depending on how they feel being one of the movie’s small pleasures. The movie doesn’t try too hard and does a lot with its small-scale story and plot, and proves endlessly visually inventive. It’s a fun, popcorn movie, the kind of animated distraction we could all use from time to time… and what’s wrong with that?

Rating: 8/10 – with a bucket load of charm and a refreshingly straightforward approach to its storyline, Home is a movie that rewards the viewer from start to finish; fun with a capital F and proof it were needed that Dreamworks is still making good choices when it comes to its animated movies.

Pound of Flesh (2015)

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Pound of Flesh

D: Ernie Barbarash / 105m

Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, John Ralston, Aki Aleong (as Leonard Gonzales), Charlotte Peters, Darren Shahlevi, David P. Booth, Adele Baughan

While visiting Manila, kidnap and rescue expert Deacon Lyle (Van Damme) wakes up in his hotel room in a bath full of ice water and his right kidney missing. From hazy memories of the night before, Deacon remembers rescuing a woman (Peters) from her abusive boyfriend (Shahlevi) and her coming back to his room. He calls an old friend, Kung (Aleong) for help, and though Kung brings morphine, he also brings a warning: for Deacon to let it go. But he can’t, and the reason is made clear with the arrival of his brother, George (Ralston); George’s daughter needs a kidney transplant and in two days Deacon was going to be the donor.

Deacon goes to the bar where he and the woman went for a drink. A barmaid there reveals that the woman’s name is Ana Riley and the man who was abusing her is called Drake, and that they can be found at Gratis, an underground fight club. Using his contacts, Kung finds out where the club is being held that night. There Deacon finds Ana. She tells him that Drake paid her to be with Deacon and that it was a one time deal. Drake arrives and there is a shootout, but Drake gets away. Regrouping, Deacon, George, Ana and Kung go to George’s summer home. There it’s revealed that Deacon is really the father of George’s daughter; they also work out that whoever wants Deacon’s kidney must be on the donor register.

With the help of one of George’s ex-students, they discover the intended recipient is an Englishman, Simon Rants (Booth), with ties to an organisation that provides security via contracted mercenaries. Deacon decides to launch a one-man assault on Rants’s home. When his plan begins to backfire, George goes in as well, but what they eventually find changes all their preconceptions.

Pound of Flesh - scene

As a member of that illustrious group, the Lesser-Spotted Eighties Action Stars, Jean-Claude Van Damme is still busy churning out low-budget action flicks that bypass cinemas and head straight for DVD. Devised to be filmed in far-flung corners of the globe, and with minimal attempts at providing either a decent plot or characterisation, these movies focus on the requisite number of action or fight scenes and build to a predictable showdown between the hero and the villain. In some ways they’re the action movie equivalent of comfort food.

But sometimes comfort food isn’t enough by itself, and so it proves with Pound of Flesh, an action movie that tries to include concepts of fatalism, guilt, and religious ambivalence in an attempt to beef up the rather pedestrian plot. As an attempt at adding depth to an otherwise solidly underwhelming script it’s not such a bad idea, it’s just that it’s all handled so badly. You know these concepts are only there to fill in the downtime between fight scenes when one of the characters abandons his up-til-then deeply held beliefs, as George does here, going from guilt-ridden pacifist to gun-toting vigilante at the drop of a hat. (It doesn’t help that Ralston can’t quite carry it off.)

The script, by Joshua James, lets itself down in other ways. The most obvious is in the way it asks the viewer to suspend all disbelief as Deacon takes part in fight after fight so soon after losing his kidney. Deacon gets punched, kicked, thrown about, flash-bombed, stabbed, and aside from the odd look of discomfort, shrugs it off with the pithy comment, “I crossed the Afghan desert on two broken legs. So, this is nothing.” It’s the kind of witless macho posturing that should be ironic now, but instead it’s laughable, and the high point of the movie’s few attempts at humour (though it probably wasn’t meant that way). The script also asks us to accept that Drake (and we have to assume this) would go to all the trouble of going to George’s summer home and rigging the fridge with a grenade, so that whoever opens it next gets blown up. As that could be anyone, at any time, it’s an incredibly stupid “surprise” moment, and reinforces the idea that scripts for low budget action movies rarely reach a second draft.

Doing his best to make it work, Van Damme plays it straight but it all requires too much work, even for him, to bring it up to par. It’s a shame that his career seems to have stalled again in the direct-to-DVD arena after his “breakout” turn as himself in JCVD (2008). That movie showed a multi-faceted Van Damme, and a level of acting ability we hadn’t seen before, but he doesn’t seem to have capitalised on that at all. So now we still have him making the same moves he always makes: the high kicks, the splits, etc. And he looks so tired. He’ll be fifty-five this year, but he looks much older, much more worn down, and while this fits the character quite well given that he’s had a kidney removed, it does give rise to the possibility that Van Damme is tired himself of always being the action hero (maybe).

The rest of the cast provide varying turns, with Ralston overdoing the whole “God is good” angle, while Peters – who from certain angles resembles a thinner Rachel Weisz – makes her feature debut and seems to keep herself at a distance, as if she’s realised early on that this isn’t going to be the springboard for her career she was hoping for. Aleong is underused, and when he is on screen, is either asking for money, or bemoaning his character’s lack of influence, but always as the wise Oriental who meditates on the vagaries of life. As the main villain of the piece, Shahlavi – who sadly passed away in January this year – is as memorable as any other of Van Damme’s adversaries over the years, but does look fetching in mercenary black.

Barbarash is an old hand at this, having worked with Van Damme twice before, but he doesn’t bring anything new to the table, and several of the fight scenes suffer from having the camera in the wrong place, as well as being poorly cut together. China stands in for Manila (obvious from all the street signs), and overall, the whole thing has the air of a contractual obligation.

Rating: 3/10 – another depressing entry in Van Damme’s filmography, Pound of Flesh has all the hallmarks of a leftover script dusted off to meet its star’s requirements; with only a minimum of effort all round, it could almost be the cinematic description of “lacklustre”.

Welcome to Me (2014)

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Welcome to Me

D: Shira Piven / 105m

Cast: Kristen Wiig, Wes Bentley, Linda Cardellini, Joan Cusack, Loretta Devine, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Thomas Mann, James Marsden, Tim Robbins, Alan Tudyk

Alice Klieg (Wiig) suffers from borderline personality disorder and lives off of benefits. She doesn’t have a job, but she is on medication and she sees a psychiatrist, Dr Daryl Moffet (Robbins). She plays the California state lottery each week; when she wins $86 million, Alice decides she wants to regain the life she had before she was diagnosed. She stops taking her medication and tells Dr Moffet that she no longer wishes to see him. She also moves out of her apartment and goes to stay in a casino hotel.

An avid TV watcher, Alice becomes enamoured of a show hosted by Gabe Ruskin (Bentley). She is in the audience one day when a volunteer is needed; Alice rushes to the stage. What follows attracts the attention of Gabe’s brother, Rich (Marsden), his producer and with Gabe co-owner of the production company that airs the show. Alice takes the opportunity to request a show of her own that she wants to call Welcome to Me. When she pays for a hundred two-hour shows upfront, Rich agrees to her suggestion – though the rest of the production team aren’t so sold on the idea. The first show airs and is a disaster, but instead of being put off, Alice invests more money into the show, thus making it look more professional.

She and Gabe begin a relationship, and the show slowly gains in popularity thanks to Alice’s confessional approach to the show’s content, and re-enactments of key scenes from her past. However, as she becomes more and more fixated on the show, her family and her closest friend, Gina (Cardellini) are largely forgotten about. She has a brief fling with a college reporter (Mann); when Gabe learns about it on one of Alice’s shows he’s visibly upset and angry. And when Alice accidentally spills hot chili on herself, burning her chest and upper arms, he reassessment of what the show needs leads to her carrying out live neutering of dogs and cats.

Things come to a head when Gabe quits and Rich learns that, thanks to Alice’s slanderous statements about people on her show, the company is facing a number of lawsuits. Rich confronts Alice live on air and tells her she needs to change her ideas about the show and fast. This causes Alice to halt the show and return to the casino hotel where in the days that follow she suffers a nervous breakdown. While she’s in hospital – and back on her medication – Alice begins to think of a way in which she can make it up to all the people she’s let down.

Welcome to Me - scene

Treading a very fine line between being sympathetic (mostly) and exploitative (occasionally), Welcome to Me is an odd movie that appears to go to some lengths to make its audience uncomfortable while watching it. We’ve had movies that feature characters with mental health problems many, many, many times before, but none that have placed them in a world where their private fantasies have been given such a free rein, and so easily.

The problem with the movie’s treatment of Alice is that it wants you to believe that she has a plan when in fact she really doesn’t. It also wants you to believe that a television production company would let Alice on the air without first vetting her and putting any relevant checks and balances in place. This isn’t public service broadcasting, and the speed and the convenience of Alice’s show hitting the airwaves (and making it onto the ratings) makes for an unconvincing development. And it’s during these segments that it becomes clear the script – by Eliot Laurence – doesn’t really know what to do with Alice, or how to explore the traumatic experiences that have triggered Alice’s disorder.

It’s a shame as it takes the edge off of Wiig’s inspired performance – possibly her best to date – and saddles the movie with several tiresome stretches that fail to engage as effectively as when the action happens away from the studio. Laurence and director Piven (sister of Jeremy, and wife of co-producer Adam McKay) invest a lot of time and effort in making Alice such a credible, fully believable character, and then place her in a milieu that doesn’t even bother to reflect on the vagaries of being a celebrity with mental health problems. It does touch on the way in which fame can isolate celebrities from the “normal” people around them, but in Alice’s case she’s already isolated, so where is the drama? And it doesn’t help that the characters surrounding Alice aren’t as sufficiently well drawn as she is, leaving cast members such as Marsden and Bentley struggling to make much of an impact (Marsden is particularly ill-served).

With all the focus and attention going on Alice, it’s to Wiig’s credit that she inhabits the role so completely and confidently that she carries the movie effortlessly, making up for the shortfall elsewhere. In fact, it’s such a strong, emotive performance that the movie loses its footing on the rare occasions she’s not on screen. Emotionally adrift yet  bound up in her own unresolved feelings of anger and rejection, Alice is a role that suits Wiig’s ability to “blank face” to a tee; you can see Alice looking out at you and seeing right through you at the same time.

Elsewhere, Clayton Hartley’s production design (reflecting the chaotic nature of Alice’s mind at home and in the studio), and David Robbins’ score (providing clever emotional cues for Alice’s behaviour) work to the movie’s advantage, while the script’s attempts at quirky, indie sensibility humour work with more of a success rate than the drama does.

Rating: 6/10 – a decent idea but lacking a through follow through, Welcome to Me ultimately has little to say about mental illness or the perils of being a modern day celebrity; relenting when it should be biting, this is saved (constantly) by Wiig’s ambitious and exhilarating performance.

Mini-Review: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

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Mad Max Fury Road

D: George Miller / 120m

Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Josh Helman, Nathan Jones, Zoë Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, John Howard, Richard Carter

Captured by men under the command of Outback warlord Immortan Joe (Keays-Byrne), Max Rockatansky (Hardy) is held prisoner in the Citadel, Joe’s fortress hideout. When one of Joe’s lieutenants, Imperator Furiosa (Theron), helps five of Joe’s “brides” escape, Joe sends everyone after her, including Nux (Hoult), a war boy with little experience and who’s been given Max as a “blood bag”. Forced to take Max with him in the pursuit, Nux catches up to Furiosa, who is driving a large petrol tanker. He and some of the other war boys attempt to stop Furiosa, but are unsuccessful. And in the melee, Max – who was chained to the front of Nux’s vehicle – frees himself and joins the fleeing women.

Quickly earning their trust, and still being pursued by Immortan Joe, Max learns that they are heading for the “Green Place”, where Furiosa was born; there they will be safe and able to live freely. Joe succeeds in catching up to them and in their efforts to elude him, one of the brides is killed. They manage to get away from him and further along the way, they meet up with a band of women called the Vuvalini. The women plan to carry on across a vast salt flat but with no guarantee that they’ll reach the other side alive. Instead, Max convinces them to go back the way they came, through Joe’s forces, and take the Citadel from him while it’s undefended.

Mad Max Fury Road - scene

Let’s get the superlatives out of the way, shall we? Thrilling, exciting, stirring, incredible, jaw-dropping, amazing, breathtaking, magnificent, gripping, mind-blowing, superb… the list goes on and on. Thirty years on from the frankly disappointing Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985), George Miller has returned to the barren future world inhabited by Max Rockatansky, and he’s come up with one of the best action movies you’ll see for some time to come. Mad Max: Fury Road is simply stunning, from John Seale’s exquisite cinematography, to Jason Ballantine and Margaret Sixel’s impressive editing techniques, to Jenny Beavan’s wonderfully expressive costume design, the movie has all this and more going for it, and in a year with so many action thrillers coming our way, will prove very hard to beat.

It’s a major triumph for Miller, hewing to a simple formula: don’t let up on the pace and don’t let up on the mayhem. There are some astonishing stunts performed in this movie, and they leave the viewer open mouthed in admiration for the various stunt teams who put all this together, and also for the sensational vehicles that have been designed and created (and endlessly destroyed). The cast are impressive as well, and if Theron steals the movie it’s mainly because Miller has amped up Max’s taciturn nature and made him more of a physical presence than an intellectual one. But everyone’s a winner, not least the audience, and this is one movie that deserves every plaudit coming its way.

Rating: 9/10 – with not an animated penguin in sight, George Miller returns to doing what he’s always done best: providing the kind of over-the-top, automobile anarchy that has the viewer watching with undisguised awe; filmed with undeniable passion – and with a lovely nod to Peter Weir’s The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) – Mad Max: Fury Road is a cause for joy and exultation, and is possibly the only time a fourth movie in a franchise has proven to be the best of the series.

Slow West (2015)

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Slow West

D: John Maclean / 84m

Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann, Andrew Robertt

In the 1870’s, a young Scotsman by the name of Jay Cavendish (Smit-McPhee) is travelling alone across the American Mid-West in search of his true love, Rose Ross (Pistorius). Rose has fled to America with her father (McCann) after he accidentally killed a Scottish nobleman. As he passes through a burnt-out Indian settlement he meets Silas Selleck (Fassbinder), a loner who knows the territory and is willing to act as Jay’s escort and keep him safe until he finds Rose – for a price.

Jay has romantic notions that he and Rose will be able to resume the relationship they had back in Scotland, but what he doesn’t know is that her father’s crime has followed them across the Atlantic, and there is a bounty on their heads of $2,000, dead or alive. He’s also unaware that Silas is using Jay to find Rose and her father so he can collect the reward. And he’s further unaware that the gang Silas used to be a member of, led by Payne (Mendelsohn), are tracking them both in hopes of getting the bounty as well.

Along the way they stop at a trading post but a young couple try to rob the place. It leads to Jay shooting the woman, the first time he’s ever used a gun. When he and Silas leave, Jay discovers the couple’s two young children outside; he gives them the supplies he’s carried out by way of recompense. Jay later becomes distrustful of Silas and early one morning, leaves their camp and sets off alone again. On a barren plain he meets Werner (Robertt) who is hospitable and glad of the company, but when Jay wakes the next morning, Werner is gone and so are all of Jay’s possessions. Heading on in what he thinks is the right direction he’s eventually rejoined by Silas, who has everything that Werner stole.

As they find themselves getting nearer to where Rose and her father are living, they receive a visit from Payne who brings absinthe. The three men proceed to get drunk, yet when Jay goes off to relieve himself, Payne confronts Silas over his plans to claim the bounty. The next day, and with Payne and his gang close behind them, Jay and Silas set off on the last leg of their trek. But when they reach their destination, it’s not only Payne they have to worry about, but another bounty hunter, one who has got there before them.

Slow West - scene

A sombre, often downbeat Western, Slow West is nevertheless an engrossing, visually striking movie that tells a very simple tale with a great deal of panache. It’s a coming of age tale and a rite of passage movie as well as a journey of discovery, and is superbly acted by its talented cast.

It works best by focusing on the dreams and hopes of fish-out-of-water Jay, and how he matures over the course of his travels. In the hands of Smit-McPhee, and writer/director Maclean, Jay is one of the most fully rounded and believable characters of recent years (and any genre). His fervent belief that he and Rose are fated to be together is so compellingly drawn that what happens when they finally meet is like a punch to the heart. Jay is so focused on finding Rose that it colours his recollections of their time together in Scotland, and Maclean inserts flashbacks to those days at key moments in the narrative. As well as filling in Jay’s back story, these flashbacks serve to show how Jay’s romantic idealism has reached the point where he has travelled all the way from Scotland to find Rose – and that there’s every possibility that she won’t be as excited to see him as he hopes. It’s a feeling that develops as the movie progresses, and makes Jay’s naïve nature all the more credible, and all the more endearing.

Jay’s potentially misplaced confidence acts as a catalyst for Silas’s reassessment of his own life and needs. It’s a subtle transformation, handled expertly by Fassbender, and shows that it’s not just Jay who is on a journey of discovery, however unexpected it might be for Silas, or ultimately advantageous. His taciturn, withdrawn nature is slowly eroded by Jay’s determination, and in the end he behaves unselfishly and with a newfound purpose, and not just for Jay but for Rose as well, someone he doesn’t even know. Though this change of heart is rushed to make way for the traditional final third shootout – which is skilfully choreographed and assembled by Maclean and editors Roland Gallois and Jon Gregory – it’s still a sign of Maclean’s bold approach to his own script that it never feels like a contrivance but more of a well constructed fait accompli.

With both lead actors on such impressive form, it’s possibly one of the few movies where Mendelsohn is overshadowed, but he does play a secondary role and has far less screen time. As Jay’s romantic ideal, Pistorius plays Rose as an intelligent young woman who is more than aware of her place in the world, and Jay’s as well. Her scenes with Smit-McPhee have a charming quality to them that helps the viewer understand just what drives Jay to find Rose.

The movie’s strong, deceptively detailed script is enhanced by Robbie Ryan’s often stunning photography, its New Zealand locations (while not quite standing in for the Mid-West that convincingly) so beautifully depicted it’s hard not to stare in awe at the mountains that can be seen rising majestically in various backgrounds, or the clear, achingly blue skies above them. Aa a result, Maclean’s visual compositions range from dazzling to spectacular, and the landscapes that Jay and Silas travel through can be seen as characters in their own right (the ashen atmosphere surrounding the Indian settlement is a case in point). Add an evocative, mood-sensitive score from Jed Kurzel and you have a rare Western that speaks from the heart as well as from the mind.

Rating: 9/10 – one of the (so far) must-see movies of 2015, Slow West could have been another fifteen or twenty minutes longer, but that’s a very minor quibble; hugely impressive all round, this is a bona fide modern classic.

Dirty Girl (2010)

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Dirty Girl

D: Abe Sylvia / 89m

Cast: Juno Temple, Jeremy Dozier, Milla Jovovich, Mary Steenburgen, Dwight Yoakam, William H. Macy, Nicholas D’Agosto, Tim McGraw

It’s 1987 in Oklahoma, and Danielle Edmondston (Temple) is constantly pushing the boundaries at her high school, being vulgar in class and unapologetically promiscuous. As a result of her behaviour, the principal transfers her out of regular classes into what is called The Challengers, a class Danielle regards as being for kids with special needs. At her first lesson she’s paired with Clarke Walters (Dozier), and they’re tasked with looking after a pretend baby (in this case a bag of flour) and keeping a diary of its daily life.

Danielle is less than impressed by the assignment but Clarke persuades her to go along with it. They begin to spend more time together, and to get to know each other. Danielle tells Clarke about her absent father, who bailed before she was born, while Clarke talks about his father, Joseph (Yoakam) and how he hates gays (Clarke is 35% gay according to a doctor he’s seen, but he’s keen to make it past 50%). When Danielle reveals that she has photos of her mother and father from before she was born, a check of the high school yearbook from when they were together reveals her father to be the assistant football coach at the time, Danny Briggs (McGraw). They find an address for him but when they go there, they learn that he’s moved to Fresno, California.

With her mother, Sue-Ann (Jovovich), planning to marry a Mormon named Ray (Macy), whom she detests, Danielle decides it’s time to go and meet her real father. She asks Clarke to go with her but he’s too afraid of what his father will do if they use his dad’s car (Ray has confiscated the keys to Danielle’s car). But when he gets home and discovers that his father knows about the gay porn he’s kept in his room, Clarke makes his escape in his dad’s car and picks up Danielle. Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker, Joel (D’Agosto), a stripper heading for Las Vegas. Clarke is attracted to Joel and when they make an overnight stop, Danielle leaves the two of them alone. The next morning, however, Joel is gone.

Meanwhile, Joseph has gone to Danielle’s house and broken in in an attempt to find out where the two friends have gone. But with nobody home, he’s arrested and put in jail. His long-suffering wife, Peggy (Steenburgen), arrives at the jail but refuses to take him home. Instead she leaves him there and decides she’ll look for Clarke and Danielle herself. She calls on Sue-Ann and together they fly to Fresno so they can warn Danielle’s father that she’s coming. But Joseph’s car breaks down, leaving enough time to go by for Joseph to be released and catch up with them. When he does, Clarke confronts his father and gives Danielle the chance to get away and still get to Fresno.

Dirty Girl - scene

The phrase, “Nobody likes a dirty girl” is uttered twice in Dirty Girl, first by the principal as a pointed reminder that Danielle’s behaviour will only get her so far, and then by Danielle herself as an ironic statement reflecting how she’s developed over the course of the movie. In both cases it’s a badge of pride for Danielle, one that defines her within the milieu of her high school (but not in the wider world, where she is just another teenager with “issues”). Basing his script on his own experiences growing up in the Eighties, writer/director Sylvia has fashioned a tale that shows what can happen when self-assurance gives way to longing, and how that longing can prompt a change in attitude in even the most rebellious and uncompromising of teenagers.

However, the reason for Danielle’s behaviour is never properly explained. Sure, she’s never known her father, but it’s a fragile hook to hang such an unhappy personality on, and the role of Sue-Ann in Danielle’s life is too vague for comfort (one scene aside, Jovovich plays Sue-Ann as if she’s reacting to everything a few seconds too late, leaving the character looking somewhat adrift from the action). Danielle picks out her future conquests then drops them just as quickly, but if you were to ask why, the movie hasn’t got an answer. Nor does it try to explain why Danielle would hook up with a shy, overweight homosexual (other than that if they didn’t, the movie would be a lot shorter). As odd couples go, they’re not that odd either, just a couple of lonely individuals who learn to support each other, and where haven’t we seen that before?

With the script prompting more questions than it can answer, and with too many scenes bumping awkwardly against each other, Dirty Girl tries for an emotional honesty that doesn’t quite come off, leaving some moments feeling preachy and tired. As the aggressive, troubled Danielle, Temple proves yet again what an intuitive young actress she is, and it’s easy to see the neediness behind her flirtatious image and attitude. Likewise, Dozier – making his feature debut – portrays Clarke’s goofy, endearing personality as if it’s the only thing about him that’s any good. Browbeaten by his father, Clarke lives that life of “quiet desperation” so beloved of screenwriters everywhere, but here it’s less pointed and apparently more manageable, thus limiting the drama. Dozier is very good in the role but he has to work extra hard sometimes to make Clarke less compliant.

With a great supporting cast doing their best with a script that doesn’t give them an awful lot to play with, Sylvia does his best to make Danielle and Clarke’s journey a rewarding one both for them and for the viewer, but he doesn’t quite manage it (though he does manage to offset the drama with some well-judged pockets of humour). While Dirty Girl isn’t a bad movie per se, what it is is a movie that you can engage with on a straightforward level and not be disappointed. But when you start to look at it more closely, it’s a movie that lacks the depth necessary to carry off the narrative. There are plenty of teen dramas out there, but this one misses out on being truly memorable.

Rating: 5/10 – lacking the necessary freshness needed to make this stand out from the crowd, Dirty Girl is forced to rely on two quality performances from its leads; a sharper script would have helped, but based on its own merits it’s only occasionally diverting and less satisfying than its premise might imply.

See You in Valhalla (2015)

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See You in Valhalla

D: Jarret Tarnol / 82m

Cast: Sarah Hyland, Michael Weston, Bret Harrison, Steve Howey, Conor O’Farrell, Alex Frost, Emma Bell, Odeya Rush, Beau Mirchoff, Allie Gonino, Jake McDorman

Following the unexpected (and quite bizarre) death of their brother Max (McDorman), remaining siblings Johana (Hyland), Don (Weston), and Barry (Harrison) all return to their estranged father’s home for the funeral. With all his children having left the family home after their mother’s death some years before, Woody (O’Farrell) sees this as an opportunity to reconcile with them, and to reunite as a family.

Johana brings along Peter (Frost), whom she’s just started dating. Don brings his daughter, Ashley, while Barry brings his boyfriend, Makewi (Howey). They find their father has a live-in nurse, Faye (Bell), who is very much into a new age lifestyle, and who seems to have made Woody’s life more bearable (he walks with a cane and is in generally poor health). But tensions run high from the first day they’re all together, and long-held resentments begin to make themselves felt. Johana has unfinished business with an old flame, Johnny (Mirchoff), and is tortured by regrets over the abortion she had when she was much younger. Don blames his father for not being there for all of them when their mother died, and refuses to let go of the anger he feels about it. Barry has lost a lot of weight and works as a therapist; Makewi was a patient of his. Woody does his best but his children fight amongst themselves and show no sign of putting their differences behind them.

Johana’s budding relationship with Peter is put in jeopardy by her conflicted need to see Johnny. When she finally does he seems ready to rekindle their old romance, but an unpleasant discovery forces Johana to reassess her feelings both for Johnny and for Peter. Meanwhile, a play fight between Don and Barry turns nasty and leads to Don making a homophobic remark. Threatened by Makewi if he says the same thing again, and intending to leave there and then, Don is confronted by Woody, who tries to settle things between them once and for all. But all it does is bring on a stroke. In the hospital, all three of Woody’s children begin to realise just how much they’re in danger of losing by remaining at odds with each other. And then, Makewi has an idea for Max’s funeral that finally unites them as a family…

See You in Valhalla - scene

Watching See You in Valhalla, it’s hard to work out if the Tarnol brothers – director Jarret and scripter Brent – have made their characters deliberately unlikeable or not. All three are so weighed down by the various slights and disappointments of their earlier lives, that these slights and disappointments have come to define them as individuals. Johana is haunted by the decision she made at sixteen and seeks some form of closure by seeing Johnny. Don has allowed his anger to turn him into a hurtful malcontent, foisting his own unhappiness on others, and turning his daughter into a carbon copy of himself. Barry’s feelings of inadequacy from the bullying he endured at school due to being overweight have never really left him, and he’s sensitive to criticism of his work and the provenance of his relationship with Makewi. And Max is shown finding a way out from his addictions through love (and a passion for Vikings), but falling back into old habits when his girlfriend suddenly dies.

But while a knee-jerk reaction to all this angst might be to say, “Oh for God’s sake, just get over yourselves!”, it’s thanks to some astute performances that the viewer is dissuaded from doing so (though it has to be said there are some moments where that temptation is really strong). We’ve seen this type of movie too many times before for the whole dysfunctional-family-learning-to-get-along scenario to appear fresh and engaging, and yet even though Brent Tarpol’s script strays too often into areas of predictability and familiarity, there’s just enough going on to keep the viewer interested in seeing where the movie goes next. The obvious antecedent here is The Big Chill (1983), but where that looked at its characters’ lives and relationships in depth, See You in Valhalla makes only a cursory attempt at making Johanna et al interesting or sympathetic, leaving the viewer largely unconcerned as to whether or not they’ll overcome their differences.

And yet, while the script lurches from one underwhelming emotional confrontation to another, the cast continually pick up the slack and keep things moving forward, doing their best to weed out nuances and thoughtful assertions about their characters and their past histories. Hyland is terrific as a young woman beset by inner demons, eschewing an easy vulnerability for a raw sense of personal transgression. The scene where Johana confesses to Peter her reasons for leaving home is skilfully played by Hyland, and her indecisiveness over Johnny will speak to anyone who’s had regrets over a past relationship and what might have happened if things had been different. Weston does equally as well as Don, taking a stereotypically angry character and showing the need for acknowledgment beneath the irate behaviour. Elsewhere, Howey steals the movie with his flamboyant turn as Makewi, adding some much needed humour to the mix and giving the movie a bump just when it needs it.

If Jarret Tarnol had been stricter with the vagaries of his brother’s script then See You in Valhalla might have been a more polished and engrossing movie. As it is, it suffers from moments of contrivance that threaten to overturn the movie completely in its first half, but the script rallies in the second half and there’s a greater sense that these characters can put aside their differences in order to support their father, and each other. With this in place, the movie ends on a satisfying note that looked doubtful at the beginning. Again, it’s thanks to a cast that takes the material and works wonders with it, giving a sometimes fresh but knowing spin on such tried and tested tropes.

Rating: 6/10 – bolstered by an infectious indie score (mostly) by 10K Dragons, See You in Valhalla takes too long to become effective, but when it does it’s truly rewarding viewing; rescued from the doldrums by its cast, the movie works best when allowing its quirkier characters free rein, and by allowing much of the movie to be filmed in an unfussy, observational style.

Spooks: The Greater Good (2015)

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Spooks The Greater Good

D: Bharat Nalluri / 104m

Cast: Peter Firth, Kit Harington, Jennifer Ehle, Elyes Gabel, Tim McInnerny, David Harewood, Lara Pulver, Eleanor Matsuura, Elliot Levey

While being taken across London under armed guard, MI5 lose the US’s most wanted terrorist, Adem Qasim (Elyes), in a rescue bid by his followers. It’s clear to the officer in charge of the operation, Harry Pearce (Firth), that Qasim’s escape was helped along by someone on the inside. However, he’s not short of suspects, from his own boss, Oliver Mace (McInnerney), to MI5 bigwig Geraldine Maltby (Ehle), US liaison Emerson (Levey), and British politician Francis Warrender (Harewood). Any of them could have been responsible; with MI5’s standing in the international community at an all-time low, it’s the perfect opportunity for the US to subsume MI5 within its own intelligence organisation.

To weed out the mole in MI5, Harry enlists ex-field operative Will Holloway (Harington), but not before he’s tracked down Qasim and made a deal with him: in exchange for arranging for Qasim’s wife to be released from a Russian prison, Harry will be given a phone number that will reveal the mole’s identity. Trusting no one else, Harry disappears, leaving Will to track down the mole from inside MI5. With his superiors uncertain if Harry has changed sides, or is working from his own agenda, he becomes as much of a target as Qasim. Aided by one of the officers, Erin Watts (Pulver) who was on the guard detail when Qasim escaped, Will learns that an order was given that requests for aerial support were to be ignored, and for the security teams not to engage with Qasim’s men.

Meanwhile, Qasim presses on with his plans to plant bombs across London. He uses a suicide bomber to set off an explosion in London’s West End, at an event attended by Warrender, who is killed. With another bombing planned to happen soon, Harry discovers that Qasim’s wife is dead. In a race to stop the bombing and still find out who the mole is in MI5, Harry must join with Will in trying to find a way to convince Qasim that his wife is still alive, and to get hold of the phone number he needs to ferret them out. Enlisting the help of communications analyst Hannah Santo (Matsuura) to impersonate Qasim’s wife, a meeting is arranged to take place on Waterloo Bridge. But when it all goes wrong, Harry sets in motion a sequence of events that could potentially bring down MI5 and make a terrorist hero of Qasim.

Spooks The Greater Good - scene

Last seen in its incarnation as a TV series back in 2011, Spooks: The Greater Good, the long-mooted movie version, finally makes it to cinemas, and proves that, yet again, big screen adaptations of small screen successes are often pale imitations of their predecessors. As it is here, with a story that tries its hardest to be hard-boiled and suitably dour, but which comes across as dull and overly complicated.

Part of the problem is that the script – by returning writers Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent – makes things incredibly easy for Harry (the speed with which he tracks down Qasim after his escape) and incredibly difficult for Will (he’s arrested and faces extraordinary rendition at one point). Also, the script doesn’t clarify how MI5 can know Harry’s whereabouts in, say, Berlin, but never come close to arresting him – until he needs them to, that is. (There’s a laughably awful scene where Harry and Will are lured into a trap by someone who’s supposedly on their side, the dynamics of which are so badly set up, most viewers will be scratching their heads and saying, “Was it this bad as a TV series?”)

Whether it was or not – and critical consensus states it wasn’t – this movie outing is likely to tarnish the series’ reputation, replete as it is with espionage thriller clichés (is that a piece of conveniently incriminating evidence that’s been found in the waste basket?), and by-the-numbers performances (McInnerny makes a character he’s played before sound like nothing more than the world’s most obnoxious, clueless boss ever). The movie also seems reluctant to make Qasim really villainous. This leads to a twist in the narrative that induces more head scratching, and further leads to the movie’s big showdown, in which we learn that any perimeter breach of MI5’s HQ won’t be detected until the intruders have made it quite a way inside. It’s moments like these that undermine the movie’s good intentions and spoil the series’ reputation for intelligence and provocative storytelling.

Reprising his character from the series’, Firth is annoyingly enigmatic in the kind of role that can be boiled down to the phrase, “I know something you don’t know”. He flits in and out of the story, prompting angry outbursts from the other characters, and as mentioned above, moving around with impunity. Firth does what he can, but you can tell he’s not feeling it, and by the movie’s end he looks as tired as a man would be if he were waiting for a better, less banal line of dialogue to finish off with. Cynics might argue that Harington has been brought in to do all the physical stuff that Firth can’t manage anymore, but those who are even more cynical will recognise that he’s the international draw meant to attract foreign – sorry, American – audiences. He’s not given much to do other than run around a lot and look puzzled/upset/betrayed as each scene demands, but he acquits himself well enough, and seems aware of just what his role is in the overall production. As for the rest of the cast, Ehle is as cool and mysterious as her character requires her to be, while as Qasim, Elyes looks as if he’s just taken time off from shooting 2016’s Most Hunkiest Terrorists Calendar.

Another stalwart from the series’, Nalluri fails to inject any urgency into proceedings, and leaves the movie feeling run-of-the-mill and retaining a TV vibe that doesn’t suit the movie at all. Once again, London is insufficiently used as a backdrop (overhead establishing shots abound to little effect) and the use of Waterloo Bridge and the National Theatre building soon palls once the viewer realises that nothing too exciting is going to happen in either location. With its dull, gritty colour scheme as well, it’s not a visually interesting movie to watch either, and even though Hubert Taczanowski’s photography reflects the darker recesses of espionage work and its human casualties, there are too many occasions where the foregrounds merge into the backgrounds, giving the movie a sense that it lacks depth in both its visuals and its characters.

Rating: 5/10 – while a good idea on paper, Spooks: The Greater Good proves to be a turgid, uninspired affair that skimps on thrills in favour of too many scenes where characters’ question each other’s loyalties; with a pedestrian feel about it that stops the viewer from engaging with it properly, the movie fails to exploit the drama inherent in the world it explores, and remains a missed opportunity.

Big Game (2014)

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Big Game

D: Jalmari Helander / 90m

Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Onni Tommila, Ray Stevenson, Victor Garber, Jim Broadbent, Mehmet Kurtulus, Ted Levine, Felicity Huffman, Jorma Tommila

On the eve of his thirteenth birthday, and following the tradition of his Finnish community, Oskari (Onni Tommila) must go alone into the mountains and hunt down and kill a wild animal such as a deer. If he succeeds, as his father (Jorma Tommila) did, he will be regarded as a man. But when Oskari chooses a bow as his weapon of choice, he proves less than capable with it, and he heads off uncertain as to how well he will do. Meanwhile, the President of the United States, William Moore (Jackson), is aboard Air Force One heading for a conference in Helsinki. Travelling with him is his senior security officer, Morris (Stevenson), who once took a bullet intended for the President. When the plane is targeted by mercenaries led by Hazar (Kurtulus), Morris gets Moore into an escape pod and jettisons it. As he parachutes to safety, missiles strike the plane and it explodes. Below, Oskari is tracking through the forest when Air Force One careens through the trees above him and crashes. Oscar discovers the escape pod and releases Moore.

At the Pentagon, the Vice President (Garber), along with General Underwood (Levine) and the director of the CIA (Huffman), are made aware of the situation. Using satellite feeds they begin to track the President’s whereabouts, and are aided by terrorism expert Herbert (Broadbent). He correctly identifies Hazar as the culprit responsible for the attack on Air Force One, though the mercenary’s true reason for doing so, to hunt the President for sport, remains a mystery to them. In time, they also learn that Morris  is working with Hazar and his job is to deliver the President so that Hazar can hunt him.

While Hazar and his men begin to track the President, Oskari tells Moore about the rite of passage he’s on. They make camp for the night and the next morning press on with Oskari’s hunt. It’s not long, however, before Hazar finds them both and takes the President hostage, though only temporarily, as Oskari rescues him (though not in the most conventional of manners). In the process they discover that Air Force One has come to rest in a lake, and that their best hope for survival lies within it. But once they’re aboard they find themselves trapped, and with a bomb that is quickly counting down…

Big Game - scene

The most expensive movie yet produced in Finland, Big Game is a throwback to those action thrillers from the Eighties and Nineties where one lone hero took on a whole slew of bad guys and offed them in various inventive ways. Here the twist is that the lone hero is a thirteen year old boy, and the location – while reminiscent of Cliffhanger (1993) – is the stunning Bavarian Alps (that’s right, it’s not Finland). Though he naturally has top billing, Jackson is actually a supporting player in a movie that keeps its focus firmly on the path to manhood being taken by Oskari.

This allows the movie to rise – briefly – above the usual run-of-the-mill heroics expected of this sort of thing, but at the same time, to minimise the amount of risk or danger both Oskari and Moore find themselves in. At one point they find themselves in a fridge hurtling down the side of a mountain and then plunging into a river. But Hazar and his men make only a token effort to chase them, and they both emerge from the fridge with minor abrasions. It’s meant to be a man hunt (and the title is a pretty big clue as well), but it’s more like a polite ramble with the occasional burst of distracting gunfire. And it ends with a gloriously explosive finale that feels rushed, even if it is immensely satisfying. There’s a specific target audience here – aside from Hollywood producers – and it’s early teenage boys. It’s a boys’ own adventure, but devoid of real threats or real pain.

But despite the long-winded beginning, and the lack of any appreciable tension, Big Game is still straightforward, enjoyable stuff that ticks a variety of boxes while sidestepping some others. Jackson’s slightly pompous President is soon taken down a peg and learns a lot from his young rescuer; Stevenson’s loyal agent has a secret agenda and an Achilles heel of a health condition; Hazar is a predictably urbane psychopath; the location photography is often breathtaking; the Pentagon seems to be staffed by only ten people; and Levine and Huffman’s characters seem so inept it’s a wonder they’re in the positions they’ve reached. Add to all that a performance from Broadbent that feels like it should be in another movie entirely, and you have a movie that falls back on some tried and (not to be) trusted plot devices and stereotypical characterisations.

However, Helander – adapting an original story by himself and producer Petri Jokiranta – does invest the movie with a sharp line in humour (Oskari doesn’t recognise Moore at all; Hazar tells a helicopter pilot his best chance is to run as the mercenary doesn’t have a gun yet), and even allows Jackson to get in a carefully edited “motherf-“. It’s good to see the star of so many low-grade thrillers in recent years play against type (Moore gets beaten up twice), and even better to see that he’s enjoying himself. But it’s Onni Tommila who steals the show, his narrow gaze and determined features giving perfect expression to a boy who won’t give up, despite the odds against him (and the fact that he’s terrible with a bow and arrow). With Helander adding some family issues to the mix as well, and making Oskari resourceful but not impossibly so, the movie retains a core focus that serves it immeasurably.

Rating: 7/10 – while not as violent as audiences might expect (or want it to be), Big Game is still an enjoyable, though lightweight, piece of high concept entertainment; Jackson and Onni Tommila make a great team, and if, as it seems, the way is left open for some kind of sequel, then that’s not such a bad thing either.

Cut Bank (2014)

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Cut Bank

D: Matt Shakman / 93m

Cast: Liam Hemsworth, Teresa Palmer, John Malkovich, Billy Bob Thornton, Bruce Dern, Michael Stuhlbarg, Oliver Platt, Sonya Salomaa, David Burke, Denis O’Hare

In the small town of Cut Bank, Montana, car mechanic Dwayne McLaren (Hemsworth) dreams of leaving town with his girlfriend Cassandra (Palmer), but he hasn’t got any money and he has to look after his disabled father (O’Hare). While spending time together on the outskirts of town, Dwayne inadvertently films the murder of local postman Georgie Witts (Dern). He takes the footage to Cassandra’s father, car dealer Big Stan Steeley (Thornton), who calls in the sheriff, Roland Vogel (Malkovich). The sheriff watches the footage and declares it’s the town’s first murder.

With the community in shock over Georgie’s death and the disappearance of the mail van he was driving, Vogel begins his investigation. At the same time, a loner with a strong interest in taxidermy named Derby Milton (Stuhlbarg) comes looking for a parcel he was expecting (and which was in the mail van). Where Vogel looks for a vehicle with a particular set of tyres, Milton looks for a boot with a particular sole. He finds out that a Native American named Match (Burke) bought a pair a few months before.

Meanwhile, Dwayne applies for a reward due for evidence relating to the death of a member of the postal service. The reward – $100,000 – will allow Dwayne to find alternative care for his father, and give him and Cassandra the chance to start a new life together in California. But when the Postal Inspector (Platt) arrives to confirm the reward, there’s only one snag: he needs to see the body, which so far hasn’t been found as it was taken with the mail van.

Matters escalate when Big Stan makes a discovery at his spare parts yard, a discovery that sees him brutally attacked. However, Milton – still looking for his parcel and unwilling to forget about it – makes the same discovery, but with a different outcome, one that implicates Dwayne. With the reward money not being paid out for a few months, it’s down to Cassandra to win the upcoming Miss Cut Bank pageant and its first prize of $5,000, and thereby give them enough money to leave town for good. But Milton has other ideas, and the sheriff is beginning to put all the pieces together surrounding Georgie’s death…

Cut Bank - scene

Watching Cut Bank, the obvious comparison is with Fargo (1996), but while that movie is still highly regarded as a classic nearly twenty years on, it’s hard to believe that Cut Bank will be looked on in the same way, or remembered at all. While it does its best to look and feel as moody as many other small-town crime dramas, it’s the quality of the story that lets it down. There are too many occasions where the story is driven forward by the messiest of contrivances, or characters behave in ways that contradict their previous attitudes. For the viewer it means a suspension of disbelief that is needed on several occasions, and for which the movie makes no apologies, as it just carries on digging a bigger and bigger hole for itself.

Indeed, it’s the script by Roberto Patino, and as directed by Shakman, that proves the movie’s downfall, causing as it does a loss of faith almost from the beginning. It plods through its twists and turns with all the authority of a movie that doesn’t know where it’s going or why – and which winds things up with one of the worst, most nonsensical outcomes that anyone could possibly imagine (except Patino). To say that it defies belief would be to suggest that the viewer might actually have some by this point. And as for some of the dialogue, the script aims for clever and insightful, but succeeds in being arch and unimportant. Only the running gag, “I thought you were dead” works as well as it should, and at one point it receives a great pay-off, but it’s the only aspect of the script that really hits home.

With the script being so derivative and uneven, the movie suffers and so too does its more than talented cast. Hemsworth proves once more that he’s the blandest of the Hemsworth brothers, and still has trouble being convincing as any character in any movie, while Palmer has an embarrassing pageant song to sing and dance to but very little else. Thornton portrays Big Stan as the same kind of no-nonsense bully he’s played so often before, and Malkovich gives possibly the best performance as the sheriff who looks to be so out of his depth that he can’t see the bottom. Of the rest of the cast, Dern is great but not well-used, and Stuhlbarg is given a monologue that attempts to explain his behaviour but which actually proves too confusing to be much of an explanation. And Platt breezes through his scenes with all the bluster that he’s employed elsewhere, but here, it’s all to no effect, and his character adds nothing to the mix.

Shakman orchestrates the various plot strands and characters with the confidence of a director who doesn’t quite know what to do with the material – which is strange as he directed two episodes of the TV version of Fargo (2014) – but again it’s the quality of the material that hampers him. He does display an appreciation for widescreen composition, but he never seems comfortable presenting any close ups, and appears content to work with medium or long-range shots instead. This creates a distancing effect between the audience and the characters, and before long, the viewer has lost all interest in what’s happening, or how important it might all be. This applies particularly to Milton’s basement “secret”, which, when it’s revealed, is never adequately explained (though an attempt is made with Milton’s monologue). It’s the movie’s one true moment where it pulls something out of the bag that’s different and entirely unexpected.

In failing to live up to its potential, and by wasting the talents of its cast, Cut Bank stalls and stutters so often, and finds it so difficult to maintain a convincing approach that in the end it becomes too frustrating to watch, and is so undermined by its cavalier attitude to law enforcement and guilt, that it never recovers. The plot lacks originality, and the characters lack any appreciable depth, often doing things without any clear motivation. That said, there’s supportive and beautiful cinematography by Ben Richardson, and while some scenes appear to run on too long, the editing by Carol Littleton is sharp and keeps things moving (when they should be stalling).

Rating: 4/10 – with a script that tries to be clever and ingenious, but falls short on both counts, Cut Bank is left to founder in almost every area; one to avoid unless the idea of a murder mystery that leaves out the mystery is an attractive one that you can’t pass up.

NOTE: The trailer contains a few spoilers that aren’t included in the above synopsis, so if you watch it, please bear this in mind.

Stretch (2014)

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Stretch

D: Joe Carnahan / 94m

Cast: Patrick Wilson, Chris Pine, Ed Helms, James Badge Dale, Brooklyn Decker, Jessica Alba, Shaun Toub, Randy Couture, Matthew Willig, Ben Bray, David Hasselhoff, Ray Liotta, Norman Reedus

Following the unexpected break up of his relationship with the love of his life, Candace (Decker), would-be actor and ex-cocaine and gambling addict Stretch (Wilson) turns to limo driving to make ends meet. With his life coasting along in neutral, it comes as a shock when one day a gambling debt he thought had lapsed, is taken over by Ignacio (Bray), who wants payment by midnight of the same day. With little chance of coming up with the $6,000 he owes, Stretch convinces one of his co-workers, Charlie (Alba), to steer any high-paying customers his way during the evening, in the hope that he’ll earn enough in tips to pay off Ignacio.

With his boss Naseem (Toub) worried about a rival limo company run by the mysterious Jovi (Couture), Stretch sees his first pick-up, David Hasselhoff, persuaded to go with the Jovi. In an attempt at getting his own back, Stretch gets to the Jovi’s next client, Ray Liotta, first. Picking him up from a movie set, Liotta leaves with a prop gun and fake police I.D., but insists that Stretch return them to the studio. Before he can do so, Charlie sets him up with another client, an eccentric businessman called Roger Karos (Pine). Knowing that he’s a renowned big tipper, Stretch tells Karos about his gambling debt; Karos agrees to tip Stretch that amount if he takes him wherever he wants to go.

“Wherever” turns out to be a secret sex club. When they get there, Karos gives Stretch a task: to visit another club, see a Frenchman called Laurent (Dale) and obtain a specific briefcase, plus locate a supply of cocaine, and all within one hundred minutes – without fail. But Laurent is expecting Karos to hand over some ledgers in exchange for the briefcase (which contains a lot of money). Using Ray Liotta’s fake police I.D., Stretch bluffs his way out of the club with the briefcase, and by chance runs into Candace. Without batting an eyelid he tells her he’s doing really well and when she shows a renewed interest in him, Stretch turns her down flat.

He gets hold of some cocaine but the limo gets stolen. With the briefcase hidden inside it, he tracks it down, only for it to be towed by the Jovi’s brother, Boris (Willig). Stretch manages to get the limo back and returns to pick up Karos. But Karos reneges on his deal to pay Stretch the $6,000, saying he was a minute late in returning to collect him. So when Ignacio calls demanding the money, Stretch tells him to meet him where Karos wants to go next. But when they all meet up, Stretch’s plans go awry when the Jovi appears and Karos hands Stretch over to him.

Stretch - scene

You know, a funny thing happened on the way to the box office…

Stretch was originally scheduled for release in March 2014, but with two months to go, Universal scrapped the release and allowed producer Jason Blum to offer the movie to other distributors. But no one picked it up, and it came back to Universal. Eventually the movie was released on iTunes and Amazon.com, and VOD, in October 2014. Which begs the question, if Universal were so eager to disown it, then just how bad a movie is it?

The answer is: not that bad. It is rough and ready though, and often threatens to disappear up its own backside by trying to be edgy and complicated, but on the whole Joe Carnahan’s blackly comic limo ride is a bit of a guilty pleasure. He’s helped immensely by the casting of Wilson in the title role, his resigned, long-suffering features put to excellent use throughout as Stretch manoeuvres his way through the kind of night that only happens to characters in the movies. It’s Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) given a more modern sensibility and with a higher absurdity quotient.

It does, however, take an age to get going. It’s not until Ray Liotta’s dropped off at his hotel that the movie begins to move up a gear, and Stretch’s evening really starts to fall apart. Up until then we’re treated to too many scenes that show just how much his life sucks, and how everything he tries never quite works out how he needs it to. By the third or fourth example we get the idea, but Carnahan isn’t finished, and Stretch’s humiliation continues, right up until the moment he cons the briefcase from Laurent. From then on he begins to fight back – against Naseem, the Jovi and Boris, Ignacio, and Karos. It’s great to see this particular worm turning, and Wilson’s unprotesting features change to reflect the smug satisfaction Stretch begins to experience as he turns the tables on everyone. It’s a winning performance, and one that makes the viewer root for Stretch at every turn.

Wilson is the calm centre at the midst of what is an otherwise wild and wacky tale of male empowerment gone AWOL, but more than holds his own when up against the feverish performance given by an uncredited Pine. Sporting a bushy hairstyle and beard, and making his appearance semi-naked in a parachute, Pine gives such a larger than life performance it’s almost as if he’s been given carte blanche by Carnahan to do and say whatever he wants (such as setting fire to the inside of the limo, or punching himself in the face for “clarity”). Luckily, he’s not so over-the-top that he proves too much of a distraction, but when he isn’t on screen, his absence is palpable; full marks to Carnahan then for not over-relying on him, or letting the character take over.

But while Wilson and Pine have fun with their roles, fun that translates as unwavering commitment in front of the camera, spare a thought for poor Ed Helms, saddled with playing Karl, the ghost of an ex-limo driver. The script requires him to pop up at odd moments and either point out Stretch’s failings, or pass comment on the action. He’s meant to be a source of humour, and Helms plays him that way, but alas nobody thought to tell Carnahan, who provides him with some of the most awkward dialogue this side of a later entry in the Saw series. To compensate, though, the cameos – from Hasselhoff, Liotta, Shaun White, and Norman Reedus – are all hilarious (especially Reedus’s).

Stretch - scene2

With the movie pushing credibility further and further under the wheels of absurdity, Stretch often comes perilously close to derailing, but at each crazy turn Carnahan reins it in and finds some plausibility – however weak – from somewhere, and the movie carries on regardless. It’s a movie that comes self-contained and relies on its own twisted logic to work, and  for the most part, that’s exactly what happens: it works. There’s a romantic sub-plot involving Stretch and a woman he’s met online, plus the whole running-scared-of-the-Jovi-and-his-brother routine, and they add nicely to the mix, adding some small amount of depth to the story and providing some secondary amusement.

If its’ all a little too far-fetched then it’s to be expected. And though being a little far-fetched doesn’t necessarily hurt the movie, it does raise that question again: just what bee had gotten into Universal’s bonnet? Because from here, Carnahan’s crazy thrill ride has a lot to offer once that shaky start has passed.

Rating: 7/10 – with a very slow start leading eventually to all sorts of comic encounters and dialogue – “I’m sorry, I didn’t see the light.” “Well, don’t go towards it now.” – Stretch is an imperfect but still hugely enjoyable comedy-thriller; best viewed with any expectations dialled down so that it can (again eventually) surprise you and make you glad you watched it.

Mini-Review: Mortdecai (2015)

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Mortdecai

D: David Koepp / 107m

Cast: Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Paul Bettany, Olivia Munn, Jonny Pasvolsky, Michael Culkin, Ulrich Thomsen, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Byrne, Paul Whitehouse

When an art restorer is killed and the painting she was working on stolen, Inspector Alistair Martland (McGregor) is put in charge of the investigation. He brings on board crooked art dealer Charlie Mortdecai (Depp) to help recover the painting which is a Goya. Mortdecai has potentially ruinous debts, and though agreeing to help, he plans to sell the painting when he finds it. While he begins the search, his wife Johanna (Paltrow) decides to look for it herself. She visits a duke (Byrne) who tells her it was stolen by a friend of his during the war, and that on the back of the painting are codes that will lead to a hidden stash of Nazi gold.

With criminal Emil Strago (Pasvolsky) also after the painting to help fund his terrorist activities, and the involvement of Russian mobster Romanov (Thomsen), Mortdecai, aided by his faithful manservant Jock Strapp (Bettany), eventually discovers the location of the painting and attempts to steal it back from the man who has it, American dealer Milton Krampf (Goldblum). Strago, in cahoots with Cramp’s daughter Georgina (Munn), manages to get the painting himself, but when he tries to find the codes, he inadvertently destroys it. But Johanna reveals that the painting was a fake, and that she knows the location of the real one.

Mortdecai - scene

Recent movies starring Johnny Depp have proved to be mostly disappointing, and Mortdecai continues that streak, lacking cohesion, credible characters, and worst of all, sufficient laughs to offset the movie’s other faults, such as Depp’s own performance. For anyone with even a passing knowledge of British comedy from the Fifties and Sixties, Mortdecai will be the movie where Depp does his best Terry-Thomas impersonation, even down to the gap in his upper teeth. It’s hard to say if Depp is being affectionate or paying tribute, but either way his overly mannered performance is so distracting it ultimately becomes off-putting (not to mention annoying).

Thanks to Eric Aronson’s trying-too-hard screenplay (adapted from the novel by Kyril Bonfiglioli), the movie struggles on almost every level except for cinematography and costume design, and makes a hash of its absurdist situations, refusing to acknowledge that less is more and that caper movies should be fun and not a trial to sit through. Koepp is a better writer than he is a director, and he plays around with the pace of the movie throughout, making some stretches play out inordinately while letting his cast direct themselves. The twists and turns of the plot are too predictable for anyone to care about, and the action scenes too pedestrian. With running gags the order of the day, the humour soon becomes tiresome as well. There’s a decent movie to be made from Bonfiglioli’s Mortdecai novels, but sadly, this isn’t it.

Rating: 3/10 – not as clever or funny as its makers will have intended, Mortdecai is yet another movie where no one realised early on just how many mistakes were being made; lacking subtlety, wit or charm, the movie is like a smörgåsbord of bad ideas all pulled together in the wrong place at the wrong time and in the wrong way.

Ten Stars and the Movies You Might Not Realise They Were In

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Sometimes, watching old movies can provide the occasional surprise, like seeing an actor or actress in an early role – or movie – when you least expect it. This happened to me recently when I saw National Lampoon’s Senior Trip (1995) (I’m a National Lampoon movie completist – what can I say?). Imagine my surprise when I saw Jeremy Renner’s name come up in the title credits. Imagine my further surprise when it turned out he gave one of the best performances in the movie (though not that much of a surprise if you’ve seen it).

It got me thinking about other stars and their early appearances, and what other movies are out there with fledgling – or fleeting – performances from today’s big name actors and actresses. So, a few quick searches on imdb.com later, and voilà!, this post was born. I hope you have some fun with it, and if there are any other examples that you think should have been included, or are worth mentioning, feel free to let me know.

Leonardo DiCaprioPoison Ivy (1992)

While it’s well-known that DiCaprio’s first movie role was in Critters 3 (1991), what’s perhaps less well-known is his participation in Katt Shea Ruben’s perverse shadow play of teenage sexuality run amok. But before anyone gets too excited, his role in the movie (as ‘Guy”) amounts to a walk-on part where he comes out of a school building and crosses in front of the camera. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part, and perhaps best regarded as an example of how good DiCaprio’s agent was back then: out of nothing he got ninth billing.

Robert Downey JrWeird Science (1985)

Way back before he became Marvel’s go-to guy for the grounding of their Cinematic Universe, Downey Jr made an appearance in this fondly remembered ode to teenage hormones and the fetishisation of Kelly LeBrock. Cast as “Ian”, Downey Jr plays a bit of a douchebag who acts as a bully to the two main characters. It’s not a particularly memorable role, and there’s nothing to suppose that his career would take off in the way it has – twice – but it’s in keeping with John Hughes’ studied look at teenagers and their idiosyncrasies, and isn’t too embarrassing when looked back on from thirty years later.

Robert Downey Jr

Julianne MooreThe Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992)

As the realtor who holds the key to the reason for Rebecca De Mornay’s psychotic dismantling of Annabella Sciorra’s life, Moore made only her second movie, and met a memorable end in a booby-trapped greenhouse. Feisty and forthright – almost a template for some of her future roles – the Oscar-winning actress catches the eye but still doesn’t quite give notice of how good an actress she really is. That would be left to Short Cuts (1993), one of her most memorable performances.

Julianne Moore

Colin FirthThe English Patient (1996)

As the movie’s star-crossed lovers, everyone remembers Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas, but when it comes to the actor playing Thomas’s jilted husband, that’s when the mind may well go completely blank. But Firth matches his (then) more illustrious co-stars, and shows that, only a year after playing Mr Darcy in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, that he can play a cuckold just as well as a romantic heart-throb.

Colin Firth

Ian McKellenLast Action Hero (1993)

In amongst Last Action Hero‘s gunfire and car chases and explosions, you may remember towards the end of the movie, the character of Death from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) stepping out of the big screen and into the real world. As audacious homages go it’s a great example of what made the movie so uneven, but McKellen brings the necessary gravitas to the role, and even adds a degree of nonchalant amusement.

Ian McKellen

Amy AdamsTalladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)

Though Adams has a track record in comedies before and since Talladega Nights, it’s unlikely that most people would place her as Will Ferrell’s love interest, whatever the circumstances (though the glasses may have helped). But as Susan, Ricky Bobby’s assistant-cum-paramour, Adams more than holds her own amidst all the manic goings-on and provides a welcome distraction from the otherwise testosterone-laden script.

Amy Adams

Cameron DiazFear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

One of a number of cameos in Terry Gilliam’s spirited psychedelic imagining of Hunter S. Thompson’s book, Diaz’s appearance as “Blonde TV Reporter” is brief, but a great example of the kind of “roles” that some stars will take either as a favour to the director, or just to be involved in a particular movie project. Plus it’s always fun to see someone pop up unexpectedly in a movie, even if it’s only for a moment.

Cameron Diaz

Nicolas CageThe Cotton Club (1984)

Working with his uncle, Francis Ford Coppola, Cage’s turn as Richard Gere’s unpredictable, violent brother is another of the actor’s mercurial early roles, and a reminder of the raw, vital talent that has been lost in the welter of tired, mortgage-paying performances Cage has given us in recent years. Taking what could have been a stereotypical role and giving it the kind of spin only he could, it shows Cage acting up a storm and commanding the viewer’s attention.

Nicolas Cage

Jason StathamCollateral (2004)

Billed as “Airport Man”, Statham has a small but pivotal role in Michael Mann’s L.A.-set thriller, and he more than holds his own in his scene with Tom Cruise. It’s the kind of unexpected appearance that enriches a movie, and lets the audience know that Statham – already an established star in his own right – can still do character work when required… and very effectively.

Jason Statham

Natalie PortmanMars Attacks! (1996)

Three years before she became Queen Amidala in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), Portman took a supporting role as the President’s daughter, Taffy, in Tim Burton’s anarchic alien invasion romp. Sharing scenes with Jack Nicholson and Glenn Close, Portman enters into the spirit of things with gusto, and has one of the best lines in the movie: “Guess it wasn’t the dove.”

Natalie Portman

Maggie (2015)

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Maggie

D: Henry Hobson / 95m

Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson, Douglas M. Griffin, J.D. Evermore, Rachel Whitman Groves, Jodie Moore, Bryce Romero, Raeden Greer

In the near future, a virulent disease has arisen that eventually turns its victims into zombies. When farmer Wade Vogel (Schwarzenegger) tracks down his runaway daughter, Maggie (Breslin), he finds her in a big city hospital where she’s been treated for a bite wound inflicted by one of the infected. At this point the rules are clear: in six to eight weeks, depending on how fast the infection spreads through Maggie’s body, she should be taken to a quarantine facility.

Wade takes her home, where Maggie finds that her stepmother, Caroline (Richardson), is preparing to send Maggie’s stepbrother and -sister off to stay with their aunt. Caroline is nervous around Maggie and is fearful as to how things will play out. Her fears begin to come true when Maggie has an accident and breaks a finger; Maggie’s reaction is to cut it off. With Wade doing his best to keep Maggie safe and protected, an encounter with two neighbours who have “turned” leads to the local police becoming aware of Maggie’s condition. When they remind Wade of his obligation to take her to a quarantine facility, Wade is blunt: if he doesn’t, he’ll resist any attempts they make to take her themselves.

A visit to the local doctor, Vern Kaplan (Moore), reveals the infection is spreading faster than expected, and that Maggie could “turn” at any time. She gets a visit from her friend, Allie (Greer), who convinces her to meet up with her old friends, including Trenton (Romero), who is also infected and waiting to be quarantined. They spend some time by themselves, and Maggie experiences a degree of happiness she hasn’t felt since being bitten. But when she traps and feeds on a fox, it proves too much for Caroline and she leaves. Wade stays with Maggie as she continues to get worse, though another visit from the police highlights just how little time they have left together. With Maggie struggling to fight against her new “craving”, Wade has to decide which decision to make: either take her to quarantine, or carry out a mercy killing.

Maggie - scene

While Maggie will no doubt arouse some curiosity due to the presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger in a horror movie – let’s not count End of Days (1999), which was more of an action thriller with supernatural overtones – it would be a mistake to so casually describe what is actually an effective, emotionally-charged drama as simply a horror movie. This isn’t George A. Romero country, where limbs are ripped off and entrails pulled out of stomachs, but rather a poignant, understated examination of parental devotion in a time of despair.

As the beleaguered father, Schwarzenegger displays a range of emotions and a sense of pathos that shows just how far he’s come as an actor, and his presence here soon becomes more than a piece of stunt casting designed to give the movie a better chance at the box office. He’s very, very good in a role that allows him to be both imposing and vulnerable at the same time, and in a way where those aspects aren’t contradictory. Here, Schwarzenegger exudes a weary resignation as a father trying to hold on to a few more precious days with his daughter, and praying for the best. He uses his features – normally so passive – to great effect, giving clear expression to Wade’s doubts and apprehensions throughout, and there are moments where you genuinely feel for the character and what he’s going through.

Breslin is equally as good as the affected Maggie, struggling with trying to remain normal, and holding on to memories of her mother and her pre-infection past. She portrays the character’s anguish and terror at what’s happened – and is happening – to her with such conviction that the tragedy of Maggie’s physical deterioration and path to “turning” is all too horrible to watch. There’s a scene toward the end of the movie where Wade has fallen asleep in a chair and Maggie kisses his head – and then lingers for an uncomfortably long time. Thanks to John Scott 3’s measured, insightful script and Breslin’s astute performance the viewer can’t be sure if Maggie’s kiss will lead to something more terrible, or will remain just a kiss.

The tone of the movie, with its slow, deliberate pace and desaturated visuals, reflects the grim nature of the narrative, and it’s sensitively handled by first-time director Hobson. He steers clear of making Maggie’s plight too melodramatic, or imbuing her relationship with her father with any unnecessary or forced sentimentality. The wider world around them is painted with a harsh realism, with its ruined city and fields of burning crops propelling clouds of smoke into the grey skies. With a sense of impending doom present from the outset, it would be easy to assume that Maggie is a gloomy, depressing experience, but again, Hobson avoids such a pitfall by obtaining two pitch perfect performances from his two leads, and by leavening the drama with flashes of humour and never losing sight of the fierce love Wade has for his daughter.

By making this the focal point of the movie, Maggie transcends its initial appearance as yet another zombie movie in a genre that’s been done to death in recent years, and proves rewarding for holding back on all the gore. Aside from the consequences of Maggie’s gradual physical decay, the make up effects are used sparingly and to greater effect, and help keep the spotlight on the emotional devastation wrought by Maggie’s condition.

Rating: 8/10 – there’s much to admire here, not the least of which is Schwarzenegger’s quietly authoritative performance and an overall approach that aims for realism (in a fantasy genre) and succeeds in its ambitions; while it may not be to all tastes, and its dour, sombre mood may put some people off, this is still well worth seeking out, and has a subtlety and power that most movies in the genre can only dream of.

Last Knights (2015)

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Last Knights

D: Kazuaki Kiriya / 115m

Cast: Clive Owen, Morgan Freeman, Cliff Curtis, Aksel Hennie, Ayelet Zurer, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Peyman Moaadi, Noah Silver, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Sung-kee Ahn, Daniel Adegboyega, Si-Yeon Park, Dave Legeno

In an unnamed medieval land, Raiden (Owen) is the leader of an order of knights called the Seventh Rank. He also acts as a retainer to Lord Bartok (Freeman), who took him in when he was younger and gave him a purpose. Bound by honour and his loyalty to his master, Raiden is disturbed to learn that Bartok has been summoned by Geza Mott (Hennie), a minister of the Emperor (Moaadi). Being nothing more than an attempt to extort money from him, Bartok makes the trip knowing full well that he will incur Mott’s enmity by not paying the fealty Mott expects. Mott confronts Bartok and there is a fight during which Mott is injured. The Emperor sides with his minister in the matter and condemns Bartok to death. When Raiden protests, matters are made worse by the Emperor’s insistence that Raiden be his master’s executioner.

With Bartok gone, his lands are dispersed and Raiden and his fellow knights are disavowed. They go their separate ways, with Raiden descending into alcoholism and losing all faith and honour. A year passes. While Raiden continues to be lost to drink and is distant to his wife, Naomi (Zurer), some of his men, led by Lt. Cortez (Curtis), are planning to break into the Emperor’s palace and kill Mott in revenge for their master’s death. But Mott has been paranoid about such a thing happening, and along with tasking his retainer, Ito (Ihara) with keeping watch on Raiden and his men, has fortified the palace to make it as impenetrable as possible.

With their plans in place, Cortez and the rest of the knights begin their infiltration of the Emperor’s palace, but instead of getting inside without being detected, they run into a group of guards. Now they have to battle through the Emperor’s entire garrison before they can reach Mott and take their revenge.

Kast Night Movie Film Trailers Reviews

It’s hard to know where to start with a movie like Last Knights. Do you wonder at the involvement of actors of the calibre of Owen, Freeman and Hennie, or how bad their performances are? Do you look to the script by Michael Konyves and Dove Sussman and wonder why did it have to be so derivative of every other medieval actioner, or so full of clunky dialogue? Or do you look to the uninspired, gloomy visuals and wonder why DoP Antonio Riestra mistook “natural lighting” for “atmosphere”? Or do you look at the movie as a whole and pin the blame entirely at the door of Kiriya, who seems to have left the heady promise of Casshern (2004) far behind him?

In truth, you could task everyone concerned with how bad the movie is, and you wouldn’t be far off the mark. There’s not a moment in Last Knights that doesn’t remind the viewer of better movies, better performances, or better all-round experiences. With the look and feel of a low budget Nineties Euro pudding but without the rural location work, Kiriya’s ode to the kind of honour-bound warrior caste that can be traced back to The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) (and probably beyond) is a misfire from start to finish. It’s so full of cliché and deadly longueurs that it chokes on its good intentions from the moment that Freeman begins to expound the tortured premise that marks out Mott’s villainy. With a line of political intrigue that stops dead with the Emperor’s complicit awareness of Mott’s scheming, and the kind of daring, suicidal attack on a heavily fortified building that is supposed to create tension – but here only generates ennui – the movie doesn’t even attempt to capitalise on the potential of its basic idea.

Owen, no stranger to playing moody characters who don’t say much, looks bored for much of the running time; it’s one of the few times where it looks as if an actor can’t wait for a scene to be over so he can get back to his trailer and do something more challenging. Freeman at least attempts to engage with the po-faced solemnity of it all, but he’s undermined by the sheer dreariness of the dialogue, and falls back on looking autocratically passive as a defining character trait. Hennie goes the opposite way, hamming it up with fierce disregard for credibility and swamped in the kind of costumes that wouldn’t look amiss on Fu Manchu. The rest of the cast also struggle with the demands of the script and Kiriya’s lacklustre direction, though there are odd moments when it seems as if a performance might raise its head above the level of mediocrity (if only briefly).

There’s a bloated middle section that’s like wading through glue as it follows Raiden and his men as they adjust to their new lives and plot their revenge. And the assault on the palace, when it finally arrives, features the kind of poorly choreographed combat where the knights only have to wave their swords around for an adversary to fall down dead. But by the time the viewer – if they’re still watching – gets to this point, the attack proves only fitfully exciting, and it becomes another impediment to the movie’s finally ending (and even then there’s an extended coda that tries to be poignant and speak to the nature of honour – unsuccessfully of course).

Rating: 3/10 – as much of a chore to sit through as it must have been to film, Last Knights never gets off the ground and appears content to keep itself mired in apathy-inducing banality; tired – and tiring – it’s a movie that all concerned must have committed to, and then decided never to mention it again.

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (2005)

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Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, The

D: Jane Anderson / 95m

Cast: Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Trevor Morgan, Ellary Porterfield, Laura Dern, Simon Reynolds, Martin Doyle, David Gardner

In the Fifties, hard-working mother of twelve, Evelyn Ryan (Moore) is a champion contester, winning prizes ranging from a couple of dollars to bicycles to washing machines, and sometimes, larger cash prizes. But with her husband Kelly (Harrelson) drinking away his wages, these prizes often serve as ways to prevent or avoid financial hardship from overwhelming the family entirely.

Raising ten kids, Evelyn often has to find creative ways of managing their finances, and while some of her wins help keep things going, she finds Kelly’s self-loathing and violent outbursts always stop them from having to stave off creditors such as the milkman, Ray (Reynolds) and the bank. Their family life is a mix of minor crises – one of her sons is arrested for theft, their car breaks down when Evelyn and daughter Tuff (Porterfield) take a trip – and major ones – Kelly remortgages their home without telling anyone, Evelyn suffers a fall and cuts her wrists on broken glass.

As the children grow up and begin to leave home, in the Sixties, Evelyn is contacted by Dortha Schaefer (Dern), a fellow contester who invites her to join a select group of women called the Affadaisies. All are contest winners several times over and all live similar lives of domestic drudgery enlivened by their successes. Her first trip to meet the group (where the car breaks down), leads to her being late home, and scares Kelly into thinking that Evelyn has left him. The ensuing confrontation sees Evelyn standing her ground for the first time.

But when she discovers that Kelly hasn’t repaid the mortgage he took out without her knowing, Evelyn has to fall back on winning a major contest sponsored by Dr Pepper. If she can win, then it will mean their being able to keep their home, and the family, together.

Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, The - scene

An adaptation of the memoir by Terry “Tuff” Ryan, and with a screenplay by her, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio is an overly saccharine but enjoyable distraction from the usual dramatics of real life stories, and features yet another effortless performance from Moore. On the surface, Evelyn is a recognisable fixture of the Fifties: the outwardly downtrodden housewife who’s a lot more clued-in than people think. Moore had already portrayed a more dramatic version of the role in Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven (2002), but here she accentuates the nicer, more even-tempered qualities of her character, while retaining an inner steeliness that is more than a match for the violent paroxysms displayed by Harrelson’s Kelly.

As befitting an actress of Moore’s stature and skill, Evelyn Ryan isn’t just a perma-grinned caricature of a Fifties housewife, and nor is she written that way, but Anderson’s only-just-dialled-down-from-day-glo approach to the material often gets in the way, making Evelyn seem impossibly irrepressible despite endless provocation. But Moore shows the character’s strength and determination to keep her family together, and the willingness to make sacrifices to achieve that aim, in such a way that the viewer can only admire Evelyn and the efforts she goes to to ensure everyone is cared for and supported. She’s selfless beyond the call of duty, and Moore inhabits the role in such a way that you never question her motives or her view of the world around her.

Against this, Harrelson has his work cut out for him, as Kelly does appear – initially at least – to be the very embodiment of an emasculated man, his deep-rooted anger at the way his life has turned out eating him from within and spilling out in booze-fuelled rages. But Harrelson shows how hard Kelly is trying to be better, even if he can’t quite achieve it with any consistency, and the scene where Evelyn returns home from visiting the Affadaisies, and Kelly is mad with panic, shows a man who is terrified of being left alone with his demons. In a separate scene we learn the reason for his frustration and anger, and when it’s revealed, the level of Harrelson’s empathy for the character becomes apparent. Always hovering in the background, afraid and uncertain as to how to engage with his children, Kelly is the alcoholic elephant in the room, and Harrelson imbues him with a desperate, overwhelming neediness that makes him surprisingly sympathetic.

Covering over ten years, the movie does tend towards the repetitive in terms of its depiction of Evelyn’s success with contests, presenting as it does a parade of problems that are resolved by the acquisition of an appropriately helpful item (and culminating in the Dr Pepper contest), but there’s enough incident in-between times to make up for the feeling that it’s all been done before, and will be again. The sexual politics of the time are held up for scrutiny, with Doyle’s oily bank manager downplaying Evelyn’s role in financial matters, and Gardner’s blatantly unhelpful priest who exhorts her to “try a little harder” in her marriage.

Away from the performances, it’s the recreation of the Fifties and the early Sixties (in many ways a simpler time for the average American family) that most impresses, with Edward T. McAvoy’s production design, matched by Clive Thomasson’s set decoration, providing the movie with a look and a sheen that DoP Jonathan Freeman exploits at every opportunity. And Terry Ryan’s script is often at its most enjoyable when reprising Evelyn’s abilities at coming up with winning slogans and rhymes, their hokey cleverness a perfect summation of Evelyn’s own outlook on life: cheery, slightly folksy, and always optimistic.

Rating: 8/10 – some may find Evelyn Ryan’s unremittingly cheerful attitude to life a little too much to stomach, but to do so would be to miss the point of Moore’s performance and Terry Ryan’s reminiscences of her mother: that she viewed life as an adventure, whatever the circumstances; as such, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio scores heavily and brightly as a tribute to a woman whose unwavering attitude can – and should be – looked upon as inspiration for us all.

Child 44 (2015)

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Child 44

D: Daniel Espinosa / 137m

Cast: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, Joel Kinnaman, Paddy Considine, Fares Fares, Vincent Cassel, Jason Clarke, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Tara Fitzgerald, Sam Spruell, Charles Dance

In post-war Soviet Russia, Leo Demidov (Hardy) is a respected officer in the Secret Police. Along with wartime comrades Vasili Nikitin (Kinnaman) and Alexei Andreyev (Fares) he investigates crimes against the state. When a suspect, Anatoly Brodsky (Clarke) goes on the run, their pursuit takes them to a farm where Brodsky has taken refuge. Against Leo’s wishes, Vasili kills the farmer’s wife and his young son; this drives a wedge between the two men.

A short while later, Andreyev’s young son is found dead by some railroad tracks. Though it’s clear that he has been murdered, thanks to Stalin’s edict that there shall be “no murder in paradise”, Leo is commanded by his superior, Major Kuzmin (Cassel), to tell Andreyev that the death was accidental. The idea doesn’t sit well with Leo but he goes ahead with it. When another child is murdered, Leo learns that there have been even more, similar cases. At the same time, he is tasked with investigating another suspected enemy of the state: his wife, Raisa (Rapace). She works in a school, and is friendly with one of the teachers, Ivan Sukov (Kaas). When his investigation reveals nothing incriminating about Raisa, his report is used as an excuse to strip Leo of his job and his home.

Leo is sent to Rostov to work under the command of General Mikhail Nesterov (Oldman). There, the discovery of another child’s body leads Leo to believe that the killer is responsible for over forty murders and is using the railway line between Rostov and Moscow as a means of hiding his crimes. Convincing Nesterov of his theory, Leo, aided by Raisa, returns to Moscow to seek help from Andreyev and gain access to files that will provide further information. But Vasili, who has been promoted to Leo’s old post, learns of his being in Moscow and tries to track him down and arrest him. Leo and Raisa manage to get out of Moscow and make their way back to Rostov. Now knowing that this is where the killer lives and works, Leo tries to find him on his own, but he has to work completely outside the law to do so.

Child 44 - scene

Based on the novel by Tom Rob Smith, Child 44 looks, on the surface, to be the kind of quality literary adaptation that offers outstanding performances, first-rate direction, a gripping script, and all of it culminating in a rewarding cinematic experience. Alas, this isn’t that kind of movie.

Instead, Child 44 is one of the most lethargic, dullest thrillers in recent years. It’s hard to say just what is right about the movie, cloaked as it is in a thick layer of cod-Russian accents and the kind of amateur thesping expected from a movie with a much smaller budget.

That such a talented cast appears so ill-at-ease is thanks largely to a script by Richard Price that leaves them high and dry in terms of conviction, and rarely links two scenes with any sense that they’re connected. The movie opens with two scenes that show Leo and Vasili growing up and during the war. Anyone who’s read the novel will know the importance of this, but thanks to Price it has as much relevance later on as its clichéd outcome requires (which isn’t much). There are other moments and aspects of the novel that are included and then ignored, such as Raisa’s initial fear of Leo when they first met, and these go some way to making the movie feel uncoordinated and ill-considered.

And the movie feels rushed once Leo has to look into Raisa’s activities, as if the strain of adapting so much wieldy material became too much and Price had to jettison any subtlety in favour of just ploughing ahead with the thriller side of things. The end result is a movie that plods along avoiding any attempt to re-engage with its audience. As such, it becomes a chore, and the average viewer will be regretting the lengthy running time.

As mentioned above, the cast can do little with what they’re given. Hardy – usually a reliably  hard-working actor – here fails to get to grips with the character of Leo, and gives a drab, uninspired performance that runs out of steam before even a quarter of the movie is over. Raoace, who really should be picking her roles with more perspicacity, is left on the sidelines too much and only ever registers when taking part in a fight scene. Oldman appears halfway through, has a handful of scenes and then disappears until the end; Kinnaman plays Vasili as a one-note sociopath (and looks increasingly like a young Keith Carradine); and Considine is saddled with the role of the killer, but never looks comfortable when trying to make him seem pitiable.

Perhaps it’s as much Espinosa’s fault as the script’s, as the director never seems to have s firm grip on the material, and shoots several scenes with a peculiarly uninvolved approach that makes them seem as if they’ve been included for the sake of it. Under his wing, the movie lacks any real thrills, and the race to track down the killer is hampered by too many longeuers to be entirely effective. And when you have a cast of this quality, not getting the best out of them is practically criminal.

Rating: 4/10 – with its superficial recreation of Soviet Russia, and cruelly dispassionate approach to the material, Child 44 never convinces; when a movie adaptation is this disappointing it’s a sure sign that everyone was having a very long off day.

Uh-Oh! Here Comes Summer! – Furious 7 (2015) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

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Furious 7

Furious 7 (2015)

aka Fast and Furious 7

D: James Wan / 137m

Cast: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Jason Statham, Jordana Brewster, Dwayne Johnson, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Kurt Russell, Nathalie Emmanuel, Elsa Pataky, Djimon Hounsou, Tony Jaa, Ronda Rousey, John Brotherton, Lucas Black

Having bested Owen Shaw and his gang in the previous instalment, now Dominic (Diesel), Brian (Walker), Letty (Rodriguez), and what seems like every main character from the series, have to pull together – with the aid of the mysterious Mr. Nobody (Russell) to take down his vengeful brother, Deckard Shaw (Statham). Throw in the hunt for a software programme, and its creator (Emmanuel), that can track anyone anywhere in the world, a trip to Abu Dhabi, and the usual amount of hyper-realistic cartoon violence, and you have the most successful entry in the franchise to date with, at time of writing, a worldwide gross of $1,352,724,000 (making it the fourth highest grossing movie ever).

Avengers Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

D: Joss Whedon / 141m

Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård, Linda Cardellini, Claudia Kim, Thomas Kretschmann, Andy Serkis, Julie Delpy, Henry Goodman

In an attempt to retire the Avengers from group duty, Tony Stark (Downey Jr) creates a robot that comes equipped with artificial intelligence. Only there’s a flaw: the robot, named Ultron (Spader), sees the best way of carrying out his peacekeeping mission is to wipe out the human race (and thereby ensure a peaceful world). With internal conflicts hampering their efforts to combat Stark’s creation, the introduction of Quicksilver (Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Olsen) to the mix, a showdown between the Hulk (Ruffalo) and Iron Man in his Hulkbuster suit, and Ultron planning an extinction level event, you have a sequel that has made $424,460,000 at the box office in just over a week.

And so we have the first two candidates for 2015’s Mega-Blockbuster of the Year Award. In the red corner we have the testosterone-fuelled, carmageddon-inspired Furious 7, and in the blue corner we have Avengers: Age of Ultron, the latest juggernaut designed to increase Marvel’s grip on the world and its wallet. The inclusion of their box office takes is deliberate, as this is really what both these movies are about: making as much money as possible off the back of a heavily marketable idea. That the idea is becoming stale (Furious 7) or showing signs of running out of steam already (Avengers: Age of Ultron) is neither here nor there. These movies are guaranteed crowd pleasers, and all the studios that make them have to do is give the fans enough of what they like most to ensure those big box office grosses.

It’s a well-known fact that recent entries in the Fast and Furious franchise have been built around the action sequences: the stunts come first and then a story is created around them. Such an approach isn’t exactly new, but as the series continues, it appears that the writer, Chris Morgan, is fast running out of ways to keep it as real as possible given the absurd, physics-defying world Dominic and his family live in. Morgan has scripted every movie since The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), and this time round the law of diminishing returns has clearly set in with a vengeance. With its dodgy timescales, crude attempts at characterisation, and action sequences that go on and on and on without ever changing pace (or should that be, gear?), Furious 7 is a movie that believes in its hype so much that it’s forgotten it still needs to make an effort beyond what’s expected of it.

Of course, script revisions had to be made due to the untimely death of Paul Walker, but like so many of the cast, he’s marginalised in a movie that has too many characters and too little time to do much with them apart from put them in continual jeopardy. Brewster is sidelined in the Dominican Republic (admittedly, not so bad), Johnson winds up in hospital until needed at the end, and Walker’s contribution seems reduced to fighting Tony Jaa. But with the script showing more interest in the villains (Statham, Hounsou, Russell maybe) than its heroes, it comes as a bit of a shock to realise that the main characters have nowhere to go – everyone, even Letty with her amnesia, is still the same as they were when they first appeared. Maybe this kind of familiarity is what the fans want but ultimately it just means that future entries – and there are three more planned for release – will continue to mine the same formula and with less satisfying results.

Furious 7 - scene

The same problem that occurs in Furious 7 occurs in Avengers: Age of Ultron, namely what to do with so many different characters, especially the new ones. Writer/director Whedon doesn’t appear to be as sure this time round as he was on the first Avengers movie (and it may be why he won’t be helming the two Avengers: Infinity War movies). While he does effective work exploring the personalities and idiosyncrasies of the Avengers themselves – Stark’s continuing egotism, a burgeoning relationship between Bruce Banner and Black Widow (Johansson), where Hawkeye (Renner) spends his downtime – he’s less successful when it comes to the villain, the villain’s sidekicks, and the whole let’s-level-a-city-and-cause-as-much-destruction-as-possible angle.

With so many characters to deal with, it’s inevitable that some of them don’t receive as much attention as others. The introduction of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch is a case in point, with Taylor-Johnson reduced to asking people he’s knocked over if they saw that coming (and not just once), and Olsen saddled with a perma-frown as she casts spells on people. They have a back story but it doesn’t impact on how they behave in the movie, and their teaming up with Ultron seems convenient rather than a well thought out plot development. Likewise, we have appearances by Kretschmann (dispensed with too quickly), Serkis (as an intro to his character’s appearance in Black Panther), and Delpy (as Natasha Romanoff’s childhood instructor). All great actors, and all reduced to walk-ons in the service of the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe.

But all great superhero teams need a great villain, and while Ultron seems to pass muster, the main problem with him is the actor cast to play him. Now it’s not that James Spader is a terrible actor – far from it – but what’s clear from his performance is that, rather than come up with an entirely new characterisation, he’s gone for a slight deviation on Raymond Reddington from The Blacklist… and it’s been encouraged. As a result we have a robot that often sounds whimsical rather than destructive, and petulant when he should be megalomaniacal. Whedon is good at injecting comedy into his movies – here, the throwaway line “No it wasn’t” is used perfectly – but when he tries too hard, as he does with Ultron, the effect is lost, and the viewer could be forgiven for wondering if Ultron is meant to be so eccentric.

On the action front, once again we’re treated (if that’s the right word) to another massive showdown where buildings are levelled, the Avengers fight off an army of attackers (last time the Chi’tauri, this time Ultron’s robots), and the special effects budget goes through the (recently blasted) roof. The whole massive destruction approach is a huge disappointment, having been done to death already in movies such as Man of Steel (2013) and the previous Avengers outing (and even Furious 7 with its car park demolition). (If anyone is listening, please let Thanos take on the Avengers on his own when he finally “does it himself”.)

Avengers Age of Ultron - scene

Ratings:

Furious 7: 6/10 – overblown (though no surprises there) and lacking a coherent story, Furious 7 has all the ingredients the fans love, but as a tribute to the late Paul Walker it falls short; a triumph of hype over content, someone seriously needs to look under the hood before taking this particular baby out for another drive.

Avengers: Age of Ultron: 7/10 – overblown and lacking in any real drama, Avengers: Age of Ultron skates perilously close to being Marvel’s first dud since Iron Man 2 (2010); saved by Whedon’s attention to (most of) the characters, it lumbers through its action set-pieces with all the joy of a contractual obligation.

The Sisterhood of Night (2014)

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Sisterhood of Night, The

D: Caryn Waechter / 103m

Cast: Georgie Henley, Kara Hayward, Kal Penn, Laura Fraser, Olivia DeJonge, Willa Cuthrell, Jessica Hecht, Gary Wilmes, Louis Changchien, Morgan Turner, Evan Kuzma

Following a feud between teenage classmates Mary Warren (Henley) and Emily Parris (Hayward) that lands both of them in the office of guidance counsellor Gordy Gambhir (Penn), Mary – whose private texts have been published online via Emily’s blog – decides to go offline and take a vow of virtual silence. She also decides to create a sisterhood, a group that girls can join that doesn’t rely on sharing things online but with each other. Her first recruits are Catherine (Cuthrell) and Lavinia (DeJonge). At night, they sneak out to the woods and have their meetings. Above all, they swear to maintain the secrecy of what they’re doing.

As time passes, awareness of the sisterhood grows and membership becomes an ambition for many of Mary’s peers, but only she chooses who to invite into the group. One person left out is Emily, who becomes jealous of Mary’s influence on her friends, and who struggles to fit in at school. One night she follows a new member into the woods and witnesses one of the meetings. Later that night, Emily posts an update on her blog telling everyone that the girls in the sisterhood chanted dirty words, undressed and touched each other, and cut Emily’s hand before doing the same to her. With the sisterhood refusing to reveal the nature of their meetings, Emily’s claims are allowed to go unchallenged, and soon her blog becomes very popular on the Internet, attracting hundreds of followers. It also attracts other schoolmates who claim they have been abused by the sisterhood as well.

As more and more claims are made about the sisterhood, the girls’ parents become more and more aware of what’s going on, and so too does the media. The press has a field day speculating on whether or not the sisterhood is a cult, or if it brainwashes its members, or if it worships the devil, but Mary and the rest hold fast and keep to their vow of silence. Emily’s blog continues to grow in stature, and becomes a place where people who have been abused can talk about what’s happened to them. At the same time, Emily and two of her friends decide to target Lavinia, believing that put under enough pressure she will reveal the secrets of the sisterhood. Meanwhile, Mary’s budding relationship with Jeff (Kuzma) founders over her silence, and upset by this she ends up one night at Gambhir’s; matters are made worse by their being seen by Emily’s mother (Hecht). As tensions mount in the community, Mary comes under pressure from Catherine and Lavinia to come clean, while Emily has second thoughts about the plan to make Lavinia reveal the sisterhood’s secrets.

Sisterhood of Night, The - scene

There’s a moment in The Sisterhood of Night where approachable guidance counsellor Gordy, tasked with trying to find out what the sisterhood is all about, attempts to talk to Mary in his office. She’s unresponsive, so he gets up and goes to talk to the school principal (Gilmes), who just happens to be outside. Also outside – conveniently – is Emily. Mary remarks that Emily’s hand must hurt where she slipped on some rocks; Emily responds by recounting what she saw up until the point where a) the script doesn’t want to go because it wants to retain the mystery of what did happen, or b) the point at which Emily will have to make things up to appear credible. It’s a fine line that the script – by Marilyn Fu, and adapted from a short story by Steven Millhauser – comes close to crossing time and again, but the audience knows that Emily is lying about what she saw, despite all this prevarication. In the same way that we know (without being told explicitly) that the sisterhood aren’t devil worshippers or cult members, we know that there is a solid reason for Mary’s starting the group (though what that is remains a secret until the end).

In making a movie about secrets that prompt lies and deception, Fu and first-time feature director Waechter have fashioned a modern-day version of the Salem witch trials, with accusations flying thick and fast and hysteria gripping hold of the Kingston community. But there’s a fly in the ointment, and it’s a big one: the paucity of adult involvement. While Mary and Emily and their mutual supporters are given much of the screen time, the adults fare so badly it’s almost as if they and their motivations were an after thought. Lavinia’s mother, Rose (Fraser), acts distraught and unable to cope from the moment she learns of her daughter’s involvement in the sisterhood. Gordy allows himself to be put in an inappropriate situation when Mary stays the night, but makes only one phone call to let anyone know (and thus cover himself). Emily’s mother is the small-town Christian busybody who accuses first and doesn’t even bother to ask questions later, and who behaves like a less shrill version of Veronica Cartwright’s character in The Witches of Eastwick (1987). And the police barely get a look in, despite the nature of the accusations being made by the press and everyone else. This approach makes the movie appear lopsided in its focus, and it never manages it right itself.

This is also a movie where the kids run rings round everyone else, and while this might make for an intriguing reflection on modern society and the nuclear family, and the teenagers who believe they can reject any notion of personal responsibility, it makes for an awkward, uncomfortable movie that is rescued by a clutch of intuitive, resonant performances. Leaving behind – way behind – her best-known role as Lucy Pevensie in the Narnia movies, Henley is authoritative and deceptively alluring. She makes Mary the provocative, intimidating centre of the movie, beguiling and caustic, and never lets the character become too affected or pretentious. It’s a strong, effortless portrayal, and she holds the audience’s attention throughout. As her primary adversary, Hayward makes Emily a more three-dimensional character than expected, fleshing out the awkward adolescent feelings Emily is trying to deal with, and making her more sympathetic than she appears at the movie’s start. With equally strong support from Cuthrell and DeJonge, the movie benefits from all four young actresses’ approach to the material, and they help guide the movie through some of its more overly melodramatic moments.

While the movie is largely uneven, and strains credibility at times, it does have a sense of small-town paranoia that is effectively rendered, and the casually cruel behaviour of teenage girls is adequately presented (if not delved into too deeply). Waechter displays a knack for making the meetings in the woods as creepy as rumour and gossip would have them, and she’s equally adept at teasing odd nuances out of the characters’ behaviour, especially when Emily attends a radio station and comes face to face with some of the victims of real abuse who’ve responded to her blog. Zak Mulligan’s photography unfortunately paints a drab portrait of Kingston and its surroundings, while some scenes feel truncated thanks to Aaron Yanes’ assembly of the material. There’s also a voice over provided by a minor character that comes and goes without any consistency.

Rating: 6/10 – without sufficient depth or clarity applied to the story and characters, The Sisterhood of Night comes across as being a mystery about something the audience won’t ultimately care about; when the reason comes though, it’s beautifully told, and more than makes up for some of the vicissitudes that have gone before.

April Was World Cinema Month

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Foreign cinema

And so, World Cinema month at thedullwoodexperiment is over. The dust has settled, the subtitles have been interpreted to get a better sense of what characters are saying (and mean), the reviews have been posted, and there’s no better way of concluding matters than by thanking everyone who’s visited thedullwoodexperiment during April and put up with my month-long “diversion”.

Those of you with a keen eye and strong mathematical abilities will have noticed that my original plan – thirty different movies from thirty different countries – fell by the wayside at around the halfway stage. Sadly, Life got in the way of blogging, and two movies didn’t make it. Those movies, Once Upon a Time in Vietnam (2013) and The Dance of Reality (2013), will be reviewed at a later date.

As for the other twenty-eight movies, there were some that made the whole thing completely worthwhile – Araya (1959), The Keeper of Lost Causes (2013), Virginity (1937), Wadjda (2012) – and, amazingly, only one that didn’t, the dreadfully pretentious Charlotte for Ever (1986). Making the decision as to which movie from which country to include was sometimes a problem. With countries such as France and Japan producing so many great movies over the years, picking just one often ended up being a case of scrolling down a list and saying, “Right, whatever number eighteen is, that’s the one.” Not the best way to choose a movie to watch and review perhaps, but on this occasion, it provided me with a great selection of movies, most of which I would be happy to watch again and again.

One thing I have learnt over the past month is that I won’t be doing this again! A month was simply too long, and while I don’t regret doing it, a week would have been better. I did watch other movies during April, a small handful of which were reviewed, but by the month’s end I was beginning to feel obliged to watch and review these movies, and a little bit of the enjoyment had gone out of it. Less is more, as they say, and I for one will be following the dictates of that phrase from now on. That’s not to say that foreign language movies will disappear from thedullwoodexperiment, just that they’ll be included as often as possible but not as exclusively as during April.

Again, many thanks to everyone who visited the site during April, and an even bigger Thank You to everyone who pressed the Like button after reading a review. Now, what’s next…?

Panic (1970)

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Panico

Original title: Pánico

D: Julián Soler / 85m

Cast: Ana Martín, Ofelia Guilmáin, Joaquín Cordero, José Gálvez, Susana Salvat, Alma Delia Fuentes, Aldo Monti, Carlos Ancira, Pilar Sen

In Panic, a young woman (Martín) flees from another woman (Guilmáin) who is dressed in pink and carrying a knife. At first, the young woman manages to avoid her by escaping into the woods, but the woman in pink pursues her. At one point the young woman thinks she’s evaded her but the woman in pink reappears. In between periods of running through the woods, the young woman has flashbacks to an earlier time when she was brutally attacked by five men. With three men trying to block her escape, the young woman is eventually caught up with by the woman in pink, and a struggle to the death ensues.

In Soledad, two men, Carlos (Cordero) and Abel (Gálvez) are in a village that has fallen victim to an outbreak of yellow fever. Having buried the last victim – who proves to be Abel’s wife (Salvat) – they get in their boat and head down river and away from the plague zone. When their boat capsizes and they find themselves stranded in the swamp, Carlos is unable to deal with the idea that they’ll most likely perish there. He begins to go mad, and in the process, reveals that he was having an affair with Abel’s wife. Distraught at what he’s done, and for betraying his friend’s trust, Carlos implores Abel to kill him. They fight, but in the struggle, Carlos stabs Abel, killing him instantly. Carlos buries his friend in a shallow grave, and as the loneliness and despair take over, he discovers that Abel isn’t as dead and buried as he should be… and that he wants revenge.

In Anguish, scientist and inventor Tiberius Hansen (Monti) has perfected a narcotic that can double as a powerful anaesthetic. Just a few drops will render a patient motionless and unable to feel pain for five hours, but they will be aware of everything that’s happening to them during that time. When an accident leads to his drinking some of his new discovery, Tiberius collapses. His wife, Melody (Fuentes) discovers him apparently dead in his laboratory; the doctor (Ancira) she calls examines Tiberius, and not finding a heartbeat or any other signs of life, pronounces him dead. With Tiberius having made it clear he didn’t want a wake, Melody and the doctor press ahead with the funeral, aiming to have Tiberius buried as soon as possible…

Panico - scene

The availability of Mexican horror anthologies is notoriously bad, with many gems of the genre proving as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth, but Panic – available on DVD and via YouTube – has managed to buck the trend, and is well worth watching. Like many of its European counterparts, it’s a a mix of the weird, the unexpectedly poetic, and the bizarre.

This applies in the main to the first segment where the young woman is seen to have problems distinguishing fantasy from reality, both before and after she’s chased through the woods by the woman in pink and her murderous intentions. The young woman (who’s name we never learn) is seen cradling a doll before the woman in pink arrives on the scene, and the maternal way in which she’s so carefully holding the doll hints at the young woman’s “problems”. Several chase sequences later, the two women fight it out, and even though one emerges the winner, there’s a twist in the tale that is both unanticipated and satisfying. There’s a lot of cutting away to shots of the trees, a pool of brackish water that acts as a birthing metaphor, and a heavy reliance on Martín’s ability to look panicked like an animal caught in a car’s headlights. It’s a very straightforward segment, but powerfully shot, with no dialogue until the very end, and then in a scene reminiscent of the ending of Psycho (1960).

The longest of the three tales, and also the one most requiring its audience’s patience, Soledad is an entry that wouldn’t have gone amiss in a Tales from the Crypt-style portmanteau. With its two men trapped by circumstance, Abel’s frequent returns from the dead are handled superbly, but it’s the long, very slow build-up as they travel along the river that’s likely to sap the viewer’s will and have them reaching for the fast forward button. The tradition of very tight close ups is in operation here, with both men’s eyes so near to the camera you can almost count their eyelashes. These shots herald flashbacks to the two men kissing Abel’s wife, albeit with vastly differing results. Once they’re stranded, Cordero’s descent into madness is handled with the era’s usual dismissal of restraint, while Gálvez’ determined looks are put to good use – better use, perhaps – when he rises from the grave. Both men keep matters credible and there’s a fight (again in a pool of dirty water) that is a testament to Cordero’s commitment to the role as he’s dunked time and again. Here, Soler loses his grip on the pace from time to time, and Cordero’s performance borders on the annoying, but ultimately it’s worth it for Gálvez’ effortless turn as a man betrayed by his best friend.

In the last segment, Anguish, the protagonist’s desire to do good backfires on him with potentially life-threatening consequences as his family and his doctor do their best to speed up his funeral. This is the segment that finally introduces some consistent dark humour into proceedings, with its flashes of occasional wit and honesty. Hansen is a hoot as the man doomed to be buried alive unless either his wife can respond to his telepathic instructions, or the anaesthetic will wear off in time. Monti, reduced to providing a voice over for the most part, plays it straight, even when he’s railing against the unfairness of his situation. Fuentes matches him for sincerity, her pale features adequately representing the features of a woman who’s lost the love of her life (whatever the doctor intends). Mostly setbound, this segment is the most fully realised of the three, and remains the most entertaining, rounding off the movie in no small style, and with one last joke to tell.

Overall, Soler directs with a view to making the horror more subtle than usual, although the first tale is infused with weird imagery and close ups of a screaming Guilmáin. It’s a proto-slasher tale, and its rural, woodland setting is well shot and lit by DoP Gabriel Torres. The same can be said for the second tale, with its outdoor locations hinting at various menaces at every turn, and some impressive nightmare imagery. The last tale proceeds as expected, and Soler makes the most of scripter Ramón Obón’s layering of the humour, making Tiberius’s dilemma more amusing than horrific – not necessarily a good thing in a horror anthology – but the acting and the pace suit the story and that last joke should definitely raise a laugh.

Rating: 7/10 – with its over-extended middle segment, and low budget origins proving a handicap in certain scenes, Panic is still an enjoyable horror compilation; with a good sense of its limitations and strengths, the movie evokes ideas of loneliness, despair and resignation, adding some unexpected depth to each tale, and making them slightly above par for this sort of thing.

NOTE: There isn’t a trailer available for Panic.

The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (2005)

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Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, The

Original title: Ang pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros

D: Auraeus Solito / 100m

Cast: Nathan Lopez, Soliman Cruz, J.R. Valentin, Neil Ryan Sese, Ping Medina, Bodjie Pascua, Elmo Redrico

Twelve-year-old Maximo Oliveros (Lopez) lives with his father Paco (Cruz), and his two older brothers, Boy (Sese) and Bogs (Medina). In the absence of his mother who has passed away, Maximo cooks and cleans and generally takes care of everyone. But where his brothers and father are all tough, macho men, Maximo is the opposite: he’s effeminate, sashays when he walks, and he likes dressing up in women’s clothes and wearing make up. He has a few friends who have similar interests, and most of the time they watch romantic movies in a local DVD shop.

The arrival of a new police officer in the district, Victor Perez (Valentin), has Maximo wondering if what he’s seen in the movies could happen in real life. Despite the difference in their ages, Maximo develops a crush on Victor and determines to get to know him better. His attraction deepens when Victor interrupts two youths who assault Maximo and remove his clothes. Victor takes Maximo home, but earns Paco’s suspicion when he refuses to accept money as thanks. Later, the two youths are found naked and unconscious on a rubbish heap; one of them subsequently dies. At the same time, Maximo finds Boy cleaning blood from a T-shirt that belongs to Bogs.

With Victor proving to be a cop who doesn’t take bribes, Paco, who steals cell phones and sells them on, begins to become concerned over Maximo’s liking for him. Maximo cooks for him and begins to neglect his family. When Victor quizzes him over the murder of the youth, it leads to Paco, Boy and Bogs ambushing him one night and giving him a severe beating. Maximo finds him and taking him to Victor’s home, nurses him until he falls asleep. The next morning, Victor is hesitant towards Maximo, despite what he’s done, but they do share a wistful moment together that gives Maximo renewed hope that they will remain friends at least.

The arrival of a new police chief, Dominguez (Pascua), however, means promotion for Victor and a crackdown on local criminal activity. Maximo’s home is raided but the police don’t find anything. With Maximo still hoping that his relationship with Victor can be saved, Paco has other ideas: he decides he’s going to kill Victor, but when he confronts him, Paco comes face-to-face with an enemy from the past, an enemy as willing to step outside the law as Paco.

Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, The - scene

A movie that begins brightly, almost in a carefree manner before slowly darkening until tragedy is the order of the day, The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros is a heartfelt, uplifting movie when it comes to Maximo’s lifestyle and subsequent infatuation with Victor, but plays it safe with its more dramatic, criminal elements.

When we first meet Maximo he’s on his way home and swinging his hips as if he’s parading along a catwalk rather than the grimy backstreets of Manila. He’s unashamed, confident, and more importantly, he’s not harassed in any way. In his local community, Maximo is well-known and much liked. His family treat him no differently than they would anyone else, and are openly affectionate toward him. In short, his obviously gay mannerisms and outlook aren’t a problem – until he meets Victor. The difference in age, the social divide created by Victor’s job and Paco’s “business”, the moral and spiritual implications (Victor is a practising Catholic), all conspire to keep Maximo and Victor apart, but it’s Maximo’s naïve yearning that gives him hope.

It’s Maximo’s continued hope in spite of everything that the script by Michiko Yamamoto plays with most effectively. It’s a delicate balancing act, but Yamamoto, aided by intuitive direction from Solito and razor-sharp performances from Lopez and Valentin, succeeds in adequately capturing the heady infatuation of first love alongside that love’s inevitable disintegration. It’s handled with a great deal of charm and discretion and scenes that might have bordered on being uncomfortable aren’t allowed to become so thanks to the script’s awareness of where the boundaries are. Even when Maximo gives Victor a peck on the cheek it’s done with an emphasis on the sweetness of the gesture rather than anything more sexual.

With the Maximo’s one-sided “romance” so confidently dealt with, it’s a pleasure to see the Oliveros’ family dynamic treated with equal confidence, their close-knit inter-dependence one of the movie’s many plusses. The tenderness shown toward Maximo by his father and brothers is heartwarming and sincere, and even though their criminal activities threaten all their futures, including Maximo’s, the movie’s message is clear: this family will do whatever it can to stay together. Played with artless integrity by Cruz, Sese and Medina, this is a nuclear family (sans the mother) that has learned the hard way that family matters above all else. So when Maximo begins to place Victor ahead of his family, the threat to that solidarity is all the more disconcerting for them; it’s no wonder Paco makes the choice he does.

But while the rest of the cast play their roles with a strong sense of authenticity and purpose – with the exception of Valentin who retains a hulking presence but little else – the movie remains a showcase for the remarkable talent shown by Lopez. Making his feature debut, Lopez inhabits the role of Maximo with so much assurance and poise that it doesn’t seem as if he’s acting at all. From his first appearance making that catwalk strut to the scene where Victor tests his loyalty to his brothers, to the final scene where he employs an altogether different walk from that first one, Lopez’s performance is never less than authoritative and genuine. He’s not fazed by the emotional requirements of the script and handles each development in the story with an ease you can imagine some other actors would kill for.

But while the movie has several strong components going for it, one of them isn’t the descent into turgid melodrama it takes in the final half hour, as notions of honour and revenge take a back seat to the carefully constructed storyline that’s gone before. With no other possible ending for Maximo and Victor’s relationship than the one that occurs, the movie was always likely to end quietly, but Yamamoto’s script turns its focus away from its main protagonist and leaves him on the sidelines while his future is decided on without him. Somehow, given Maximo’s intelligence and acceptance of the world he lives in, it seems a shame to marginalise him in this way. And a quick mention for the music, mostly guitar-based, but which is, at times, incredibly intrusive.

Rating: 8/10 – a compelling drama about the consequences of one young boy’s first love, The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros makes no judgment about his love, but does tread a very fine line in displaying it; with a mesmerising performance from Lopez it’s genuinely affecting and rewarding.

A Song of Lisbon (1933)

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A Song for Lisbon

Original title: A Canção de Lisboa

D: José Cottinelli Telmo / 91m

Cast: Vasco Santana, Beatriz Costa, António Silva, Teresa Gomes, Sofía Santos, Alfredo Silva, Ana María, Manoel de Oliveira, Eduardo Fernandes

Vasco Leitão (Santana) is a medical student with two adoring aunts (Gomes, Santos) who have funded his studies, but who are unaware that their nephew has squandered their money on wine, women and song. To make matters worse, he’s told them he’s passed his exams, has an impressive office, and is doing really well. So when they write to him and tell him they plan to visit him, and see how successful he’s become, Vasco doesn’t know what to do.

He confides in his girlfriend, Alice (Costa), with whom he has a relationship fraught with animosity (she can’t stand his flirting with other women, he can’t stand her jealousy). When he tells her of the generous inheritance he stands to gain from his aunts, she in turn tells her father, Caetano (Silva) as a means to persuading him to accept Vasco as a future son-in-law. Caetano sees the light and welcomes Vasco into his home, but Vasco’s landlord (Alfredo Silva) muscles in on Caetano’s plans to appropriate the aunts’ money.

This leads to Vasco being made homeless on the same day as his aunts’ arrival. With the aid of his friends from medical school he manages to distract them both, while Caetano promises to impress them with tales of how Vasco has saved his life. In the process he and Alice have a falling out that ends their relationship. Inevitably his aunts discover the truth and disinherit him (even as they become enamoured of Caetano and Vasco’s now ex-landlord). With no money, no home, no job and no girlfriend, Vasco is at a loss as to what to do next.

A chance encounter with his friend Carlos (de Oliveira) leads to Vasco being asked to sing Fado at a restaurant with a stage area. Unfortunately, by the time he takes to the stage he’s had a little too much to drink and his “performance” sees the audience throw food at him and call for him to leave the stage. Chased off, Vasco ponders on the way in which things have turned out, and as a result he begins to turn his life around, beginning with singing Fado more professionally.

A Song for Lisbon - scene

Of interest for being the first Portuguese sound movie to have been produced entirely in Portugal, A Song for Lisbon is also only the second sound movie made in the Portuguese language, after A Severa (1931). Made during a period now regarded by many as Portugal’s Golden Era, the movie is a gleeful mix of comedy, romance and music, a sparkling piece of cinematic confectionery that plays to its strengths: a cast at the top of their game, a storyline that keeps it simple and straightforward, and direction that combines the two effortlessly.

The main draw here, of course, is Santana, already an accomplished stage performer and reminiscent of Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle in his prime. This was his first starring role in a full-length movie, and there’s not a trace of nerves or hesitancy in his performance whatsoever. With his cheerful grin and impish sense of humour, allied to various bits of stage work that he manages to include in amongst the comedic goings-on, Santana is never less than fun to watch. His drunken Fado audition is a great example, as he uses a guitar like a tennis racket to fend off the fruit that’s hurtling in his direction – it’s a vaudeville moment, pure and simple, and all the more effective for being so. He’s a star turn, so confident that you wouldn’t be surprised if he turned and winked at the camera every now and then.

Under Telmo’s assured direction, Santana and the rest of the cast revel in the carefree mise-en-scene, with Costa’s angry yet besotted girlfriend proving a great foil for Santana’s mischievousness (their food fight is a highlight). As the devious Caetano, Silva manages to avoid twirling his moustache in the manner of a silent movie villain, but otherwise it’s a similar performance, perfectly executed and with just the right amount of self-awareness amidst all the pomposity. The sequence where he oversees the crowning of Miss Seamstress (unsurprisingly it’s Alice), is a masterclass in suppressed humility and blatant favouritism. Further down the list of course is de Oliveira, making his first credited appearance as an actor (he wouldn’t do so again until 1963). He doesn’t have a big part, nor does he stand out particularly, but in some strange way it’s fun to see him in the prime of life, and not as the centenarian director he became famous for.

The movie also works in various Lisbon locations, but its opening credits sequence aside, manages to avoid becoming a kind of travelogue for the city, and instead uses it as a beautiful backdrop, and thereby enhancing the story. The musical numbers include a melancholy song of love sung by Costa that is as touching now as it was then, and a sweetly ridiculous number called The Thimble and the Needle (also sung by Costa). It all adds up to a glorious piece of entertainment that gallops along while barely pausing for breath, and which sets out to entertain its audience thoroughly, and thoroughly succeeds.

Rating: 9/10 – a perfect example of how to transfer an energetic, entertaining script to the screen and make it sing, A Song of Lisbon is both delightful and delicious; a triumph for all concerned and in comparison with some of the musicals being produced by Hollywood at the time, absolutely streets ahead.

NOTE: There’s no trailer available for A Song of Lisbon, but the following clip gives a good example of the humour involved:

A Small September Affair (2014)

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Small September Affair, A

Original title: Bi Küçük Eylül Meselesi

D: Kerem Deren / 102m

Cast: Farah Zeynep Abdullah, Engin Akyürek, Ceren Moray, Onur Tuna, Serra Keskin

TV production associate Eylül (Abdullah) has a dream career, a handsome actor boyfriend, Atil (Tuna), and is living life to the full. But when a car crash causes her to lose her memory of the month immediately before the accident, it also causes her to wonder just why she can’t remember that time, and why she is getting sudden flashes of being on an island. Pressuring her best friend Berrak (Moray) into telling her where she was, Eylül learns that she and Berrak and Atil took a break to the island of Bozcaada a month before the accident.

Eylül insists on returning there, and reluctantly, Berrak goes with her. With her friend clearly hiding something, Eylül separates from her and encounters a young man, Lone (Akyürek), who recognises her. But she doesn’t recognise him, however, he manages to persuade her to meet him at a nearby restaurant. There, he begins to tell her of the way in which they met, and their first “date”. But when Berrak calls her and warns her to get away, Eylül becomes frightened and runs away. Lone follows her; when he catches up to her he shares another memory of their time together. When Berrak finds her, Eylül is even more confused by what her emerging memories are telling her, and Berrak’s insistence that they should leave and that everything is all right.

She continues to see Lone, and he tells her how she decided to stay on the island instead of returning home with Berrak and Atil. He tells her how they visited various places on the island, and how she taught him to swim. Coming to understand that she and Lone were falling in love, Eylül is still confused as to why Berrak is so worried by her being on the island, even after Lone tells her about her visit to his home and she came to learn that he is the man she’s always sworn she’ll marry, an artist who provides caricatures for the newspapers. But Eylül remembers more: she remembers the morning after she and Lone had first made love, and seeing herself in the mirror and not being able to recognise herself from the ambitious, fun-filled young woman she’d always aspired to be.

Atil arrives on the island and he and Berrak make her confront this memory, and the consequence of it, a consequence which she remembers, and which she discovers, brings her back full circle to the car crash and her loss of memory.

Small September Affair, A - scene

The first feature from the co-writer of the highly regarded Turkish TV drama Ezel (2009-2011), A Small September Affair is a small-scale winner that creates enough mystery out of Eylül’s missing month to keep the viewer intrigued and second guessing things throughout. It plays with notions of memory and imagination and longing with a lightness of touch that is both engaging and confident, and it deliberately avoids straying too far into more dramatic territory, despite an undercurrent that threatens to pull it that way on occasion.

The tone of the movie is all-important, as Deren constantly strives to undermine the audience’s expectations of what will happen next. By making Eylül’s memories potentially unreliable (each time she remembers something, Berrak comes along to question it), the movie makes each new revelation about her relationship with Lone that much more important to her. This allows Eylül’s journey to balance precariously on the knife edge of fantasy, as each new “truth” shows her behaving in ways that don’t match up with someone who views themselves as “too joyful to fall in love”. As a result, the final revelation carries an emotional weight that acts like a hammer blow, and turns the whole need for Eylül to travel to Bozcaada completely on its head (as well as explaining Berrak’s behaviour).

The central romance between Eylül and Lone is handled with a great deal of whimsy but it’s also well sustained by Deren and his two leads. Abdullah, with her blonde hair and depthless eyes, shines, both as the fun-seeking Eylül and her disconcerted, amnesiac future self. She’s an attractive screen presence, sprightly and high-spirited, allowing the audience to empathise with Eylül’s predicament and urge her onwards in her search for the “truth”. As her paramour Lone, Akyürek employs a winning, puppy dog look that screams younger Ashton Kutcher lookalike, but it proves a strangely apt fit for a character who admits to being scared of everything, and who is joyful in ways that Eylül can only dream of. Together they play out a romantic game of charades that allows both actors to give completely endearing performances.

As might be expected, though, there are a couple of flaws in Deren’s script. Berrak’s behaviour, while explained at the end, is still too aggressive to be entirely acceptable in someone who is supposed to be Eylül’s best friend; and it’s hard to work out why Eylül herself is so suddenly convinced of her need to leave Lone and Bozcaada behind, given that she’s acclimated to the island lifestyle so quickly and with such fervour (it’s that predictable moment in a romantic drama where an obstacle to everlasting love rears its ugly head and spoils things).

The movie benefits tremendously from its sun-drenched Bozcaada locations, lovingly lensed by DoP Gökhan Tiryaki, and makes a virtue of the relaxed, easy-going lifestyle its inhabitants enjoy. There’s also a fitting score by Toygar Isikli that matches the casual rhythms of island life and the touching romance between Eylül and Lone, as well as the apt inclusion of Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun in a party scene.

Rating: 8/10 – an emotionally sincere romantic drama that has its own fair share of deft, comedic moments, A Small September Affair lifts the spirits with efficiency and ease; with its central mystery adding depth to an otherwise standard love affair, the movie works on more than one level – and successfully throughout.

NOTE: The following trailer doesn’t have any English subtitles, but it’s still worth a look.

Trailer – The Film Critic (2013)

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Just now getting a wider release – though in the USA only – after being shown at various festivals and on release in its native Argentina and Brazil, Hernán Guerschuny’s The Film Critic looks like a cineaste’s dream… or a gooey treat for lovers of romantic comedies. Either way, the trailer’s deconstruction of the classic romantic comedy set up is hilarious by itself, and bodes well for the movie as a whole. Let’s hope it lives up to its promise and gains a wider, international release before long.

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