Inside Out (2015)

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Inside Out

D: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen / 94m

Cast: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan

When a girl named Riley (Dias) is born the first emotion she forms is Joy (Poehler), followed by Sadness (Smith). As she grows up, Fear (Hader), Anger (Black) and Disgust (Kaling) form as well, but Joy ensures she supersedes the others. When Riley is twelve her father (MacLachlan) starts a new business in San Francisco; this means moving from their home in Minnesota. Riley puts a good face on things (thanks to Joy), but Sadness is never too far away from trying to influence her reactions and behaviour. When Riley’s mother (Lane) asks her what her favourite memory from the trip was, what starts off as a happy memory soon turns sour because Sadness has touched this particular recollection, and changed its composition.

At her first day at her new school, Riley talks about the hockey team she played in but this memory also becomes tinged with sorrow. In her mind, Sadness has touched this happy core memory and changed its composition as well, despite Joy’s efforts to stop her. A struggle ensues between them, and through Joy’s efforts to stop Sadness changing any more core memories, she, Sadness and the remaining core memories are sucked up into the dump tube and find themselves stranded in Riley’s long-term memory. With two of her core emotions removed from her mind’s control room, Riley finds it difficult to control her feelings, and friction develops between her and her parents.

This leads to her personality islands, areas of her mind that have been founded on her core memories, beginning to crumble and collapse. Joy and Sadness can see this happening, and they double their efforts to return to the control room. As they look for a way back they meet Bing Bong (Kind), Riley’s old imaginary friend. He helps them navigate their way through Riley’s long-term memory, and hitch a ride on Riley’s Train of Thought, which always passes close to the control room. Various obstacles cause their return to be delayed, and while Fear, Anger and Disgust do their best to make the right decisions for Riley’s emotional behaviour, she becomes more and more withdrawn and disillusioned. Eventually, Fear decides the best course of action is to prompt Riley into running away back to Minnesota. She steals money from her mother’s purse and sneaks out one evening to the bus station. As she does, Joy makes an important realisation about Sadness, one that will hopefully return things to how they were before.

Inside Out - scene

The last few years have seen Pixar stuck in a kind of creative rut. Since Toy Story 3 (2010), they’ve released only one original movie – the beautiful but flawed Brave (2012) – and two further movies featuring returning characters: the disappointing Cars 2 (2011), and the enjoyable but somehow flat Monsters University (2013). Also, another proposed movie, Newt, fell by the wayside (although Docter’s spin on it has led to Inside Out being made). With the company taking 2014 off, it seems as if a minor resurgence has occurred, because Inside Out is Pixar’s best movie since Toy Story 3, and in many ways their best movie to date.

This is due mostly to the decision to avoid sugar-coating Riley’s emotions and her reactions to the move from the home she loves to a place where she has to sleep on the floor because her furniture has been delayed in arriving. It’s a movie about the emotional changes that are needed to deal with being uprooted and having to “start all over again” in a strange place. It’s also about recognising that you can’t be happy all the time, and that it’s okay to be sad sometimes. For adults this is a lesson we’ve all learnt, but for a twelve year old it’s a frightening prospect, and one of the strengths of the script by Docter, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley, is that it accurately and succinctly portrays the doubts and fears and confusion of trying to deal with such issues when your experience of them is so limited.

By focusing on five particular emotions, the script also covers the more basic human emotions, and this allows the script to be more astute than if the full range of emotions had been included. Joy is endlessly upbeat and constantly striving to make Riley’s life a continually happy one. Sadness is becoming more of an influence on Riley, and she’s also the gloomy one, who when tasked with talking about something she likes, responds with “I like being outside… in the rain”. Fear is like a paranoid health and safety inspector, always on edge and expecting the worst. Anger is, predictably, a hothead, prone to aggressive outbursts at the slightest provocation. And Disgust is resolute in her dislikes, dismissive of most things and also a little bit manipulative. Each character is portrayed with skill and understanding by the cast, and there’s much fun to be had in amongst the pre-teen trials and tribulations (when a new console is installed in Riley’s control room, Disgust asks, “What’s this button? Pu…berty?”).

Some viewers may find Joy and Sadness’s efforts to return to the control room to be a little long-winded as various parts of Riley’s mind are explored to varying degrees, but what should be appreciated is the sheer inventiveness and impressive art design that has gone into these sequences, especially the room called Abstract Thought, where Joy, Sadness and Bing Bong begin to lose their body shapes. It’s a clever, standout moment in the movie, and a reminder that when Pixar are playing their A game, no one else can touch them. Of course, the visuals are up to Pixar’s exemplary standards, with several scenes boasting a clarity of image and matching emotional heft that on at least two occasions are likely to bring a tear or two to the viewer’s eyes.

In assembling the material, Docter and his team have done a remarkable job. The cast are uniformly excellent (but with special mention going to Smith and Kind), the character design is impressive, and there’s yet another evocative score courtesy of Michael Giacchino. It’s all been put together with precision and care, and is by far and away one of the best movies of 2015.

Rating: 9/10 – funny, sad, thrilling, poignant, knowing, endearing – Inside Out is all these things and more, and shows that serious topics can be approached with honesty and hilarity, and with neither hampering the other; superbly done, and with The Good Dinosaur also heading our way this year, a clear indication that Pixar are well and truly back on form.

Mini-Review: A Little Chaos (2014)

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Little Chaos, A

D: Alan Rickman / 116m

Cast: Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alan Rickman, Helen McCrory, Stanley Tucci,  Steven Waddington, Jennifer Ehle, Paula Paul, Danny Webb

France, 1682. At the behest of King Louis XIV (Rickman), landscape garden designers are invited to submit their designs for the planned new gardens at the Palace of Versailles. Sabine De Barra (Winslet), a widow who has a keen eye for the disruptive yet beguiling influence that disorder can have on a garden, meets with the King’s renowned landscape architect, André Le Notre (Schoenaerts). He is concerned by her attitude and lack of formal training, but he nevertheless hires her to build one of the main gardens at Versailles, the Rockwork Grove.

Sabine begins her work in earnest but is initially hampered in her efforts by the other, male, designers. Le Notre intervenes for her, and as her design begins to take shape, he finds himself increasingly attracted to Sabine, despite his being married. He takes to spending more time with her, something which his wife (McCrory) notices. While Le Notre wrestles with his sense of honour and marital duty, Sabine unwittingly earns the respect of the King, and also his brother, Philippe (Tucci). As the project nears completion, Sabine is invited to attend the King’s court, where her honesty and subtle persuasiveness earns her many friends among the ladies in waiting – all except one, who decides to sabotage Sabine’s design…

Little Chaos, A - scene

An old-fashioned heritage picture, A Little Chaos – Rickman’s second directorial feature after The Winter Guest (1997) – is a movie that will sit well with anyone who’s seen similar movies from the Thirties, replete as it is with a woman battling against the preconceptions of her gender and the sexism of the times, a romance where convention says the couple should remain apart, and a minimal amount of political intrigue at the King’s court. It’s a pleasant movie to watch, not least because of Winslet’s emotive yet (mostly) carefully detailed performance, and shows Rickman is adept at staging scenes for their maximum emotional effect as well as their visual splendour.

And yet, while the movie has plenty of positives about it, it’s let down by the romantic storyline, with Le Notre and Sabine’s ardour for each other feeling watered down and sounding less than enthusiastically entered into. Schoenaerts never looks entirely comfortable in these scenes, and Winslet too seems unsure of how to play the drama of their situation. In contrast, the scene where Sabine and the King exchange views on gardening and various flowers, is laden with subtext and deliberate innuendo, leaving the viewer with no doubt that, in a different life, the romance would be between them and not Sabine and Le Notre.

Rickman is a generous director when it comes to his cast, and he finds a willing aide in Ellen Kuras’ often stunning cinematography, for the movie is beautiful to look at. And as historical romantic dramas go there’s a degree of humour that helps leaven the seriousness of the story, while Tucci’s flamboyant Philippe gives the movie a much needed boost just as it was starting to sag. And there’s a wonderful, non-intrusive score courtesy of Peter Gregson.

Rating: 7/10 – enjoyable if lacking in any appreciable depth, A Little Chaos is gentle, harmless, and a pleasant diversion from this year’s slew of mega-blockbusters; with Winslet, Rickman and McCrory winning the acting plaudits, this trip back to 17th Century France is an undemanding one but worth seeing nevertheless.

10 Spoof Movie Posters

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While I was searching for movie posters to include in my Poster of the Week feature, I came across quite a few spoof versions, most of which were obvious or clumsy in execution. But there were some that stood out in terms of originality and for putting a clever spin on the original poster. Here are ten of the best, and in no particular order of popularity or preference. I hope you like them as much as I do.

1 – Fruitvale Station (2013)

There’s nothing like getting to the heart of the matter or telling it straight, which is what makes this “serious” spoof so effective. It’s an example of the “honest poster” and the title change from Fruitvale Station says it all, and for an extra twist of the knife, the tagline rams the message home quite forcefully and with no apologies for its stance.

Fruitvale Station

2 – Jaws (1975)

There are dozens of spoof Jaws movie posters out there, and almost all of them try to retain the title as much as they can, but few keep the whole word with just the addition of a single extra letter. Congratulations then to this poster for being so creative and for providing a mash-up of two movie series into the bargain.

Jaws

3 – Taken 2 (2012)

Sometimes, the best spoofs are those that poke fun at movies that take themselves just a little bit too seriously. And Taken 2 was certainly a gloomy revenge thriller, with Liam Neeson glowering throughout. But this example of the spoof poster takes all that gloominess and the oppressive atmosphere and literally “dumps” all over it.

Taken 2

4 – Rain Man (1988)

The Simpsons feature in a lot of spoof movie posters but this is one of the best, recreating the original’s style and looking more like an animated sequel than a humorous homage to Rain Man itself. The expressions are fantastic as well, and the whole thing is so simple it just adds another layer of quality to the finished poster.

Rain Man

5 – Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

As with the Simpsons, those little yellow Minions feature in quite a few spoof movie posters as well, and trying to choose just one was really difficult, but in the end this example won out because it’s visually striking as well as funny, and isn’t a case of someone just photoshopping a Minion onto the head of Darth Maul.

Star Wars Episode 1

6 – Se7en (1995)

Mash-ups are popular with spoof movie poster designers, and this combination of Disney classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and modern serial killer movie Se7en is inspired (though John Doe is still scarier than Maleficent). And to add to the fun you can try and work out which dwarf matches up with which deadly sin.

Se7en

7 – Up (2009)

A simple enough exercise that retains the bright colour scheme of the original, and still manages to capture Up‘s spirit of adventure, this poster is an obvious response perhaps, but again it’s the way in which the original look and feel has been recreated, and still manages to raise a smile, this time of happy acknowledgement.

Up

8 – Goldfinger (1964)

If ever there was a movie series that deserved to be spoofed (as it has been) then it’s the James Bond franchise. This French poster for Goldfinger takes an obvious title change and adds a picture of the item in question and does nothing else, keeping the rest of the poster intact and making it look – at first glance at least – as if it’s a genuine Bond movie.

Goldfinger

9 – The Constant Gardener (2005)

One small change to a title can make all the difference sometimes, and this example turns The Constant Gardener‘s paranoid thriller into something very different indeed. The graphics are a little too “in your face” but the humour is guaranteed to “raise” a smile, and is a good example of how a little smut can go a long way.

Constant Gardener, The

10 – Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

A lot of spoof movie posters work by subverting the original image and/or juxtaposing it with an image that is completely at odds or at a considerable distance from the original image and its intentions. Such is the case with this version of Fifty Shades of Grey, where Christian Grey’s replacement – and the careless absurdity of his being at the window in the first place – just makes it all the funnier (and might just make for a more interesting and entertaining movie).

Fifty Shades of Grey

Oh! the Horror! – Lake Placid vs Anaconda (2015) and Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! (2015)

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Lake Placid vs Anaconda

D: A.B. Stone / 91m

Cast: Corin Nemec, Yancy Butler, Stephen Billington, Skye Lourie, Oliver Walker, Ali Eagle, Annabel Wright, Laura Dale, Robert Englund

When the Wexel Corporation decides to create a hybrid anaconda/crocodile in order to increase their chances of procuring the rare properties of the Blood Orchid plant, their attempts to do so lead to both creatures being on the loose in and around Black Lake and Clear Lake. Fish and Wildlife ranger Will Tull (Nemec) and local sheriff Reba (Butler) team up to track and hunt them while at the same time trying to keep the news of the creatures’ escape quiet from the local residents.

Tull’s daughter, Bethany (Lourie), however, is at Clear Lake as part of her sorority pledge, and soon finds herself and her friends at the mercy of several crocodiles. While Tull and Reba try to find her, and fight off the attacks of the crocodiles, Wexel head Sarah Murdoch (Wright), along with hired muscle Beach (Billington) and two of his men, track the female anaconda who is due to lay her cross-fertilised eggs anytime soon. As the body count rises, the importance of finding the female anaconda before this happens becomes of paramount importance.

Lake Placid vs Anaconda - scene

For anyone who thought Lake Placid: The Final Chapter (2012) was really the final entry in the series, here’s yet another stab at the idea that ran out of steam in Lake Placid 2 (2007). If you’ve seen The Final Chapter, then as far as the crocodile parts of this movie go it’s very much business as usual, with Butler and England returning to provide a link with the previous instalment (and both looking as if they’ve regretted it). The inclusion of the anacondas from that particular series, along with the quest for the life-giving properties of the Blood Orchid, was probably felt to be a good enough idea to kickstart a new franchise – you can guess what happens in the final scene – but the whole teens in peril/let’s hunt predators in the woods set up is as dull and uninspired as it was before in both series.

Rookie director Stone is unable to make anything out of Berkeley Anderson’s patchwork script, and the performances range from perfunctory to embarrassing (Walker’s comedy deputy). Once again the special effects are of the sub-par CGI variety, with the requisite blood splatters looking even more fake than usual. The anacondas play second fiddle to the crocodiles, while the lacklustre Bulgarian locations give a clear indication of how far both series’ have fallen in terms of their production values. If, as seems likely, there’s to be another in the (joint) series, then it’s hard to imagine it could be any worse than this entry.

Rating: 3/10 – of only superficial interest, and one for the fans if no one else, Lake Placid vs Anaconda is an attempt at regenerating two flagging franchises that falls flat on its face within the first five minutes; that it’s terrible from start to finish is a given, but you have to see it to realise just how terrible it actually is.

 

Sharknado 3

D: Anthony C. Ferrante / 88m

Cast: Ian Ziering, Tara Reid, Cassie Scerbo, Frankie Muniz, Ryan Newman, David Hasselhoff, Bo Derek, Mark Cuban

In Washington D.C. to receive a Freedom medal from the President (Cuban), unlucky hero Fin Shepard (Ziering) finds himself dealing with yet another, more intense sharknado that causes an incredible amount of destruction, hundreds of deaths, and leads to Fin saving the President’s life. Worse still, a series of storms out in the Atlantic are converging on America’s east coast, and look set to generate the worst, most devastating sharknado of them all. With his ex-wife April (Reid) close to giving birth, and spending some time with her mother May (Derek) and daughter Claudia (Newman) at the Universal Studios theme park in Florida, Fin determines to get to her as quickly as possible, and make sure she’s safe.

With mini-sharknados popping up out of the blue on his journey south, Fin finds himself rescued from one such obstacle by his friend and partner in shark killing, Nova (Scerbo). She and a friend, Lucas (Muniz) have been trying to find a way of stopping the sharknados from happening ever again, but as they help Fin get to Florida, their vehicle is destroyed and they’re forced to fly there. After a crash landing, Fin and April are reunited, and together with Nova they come up with a plan to put paid to the approaching weather system, but their plan fails, leaving Fin with only one option: to ask for help from his father, a retired NASA Colonel (Hasselhoff). By using a space shuttle, their plan is to drop the main fuel tank into the eye of the storm, but when that idea proves ineffective, there’s only one thing left to do: use the supposedly defunct Star Wars programme from the Eighties…

Sharknado 3 - scene

The first Sharknado (2013) was awful, dreadful rubbish that seemed unaware of its failings or how terrible it was. The second – aptly titled Sharknado 2: The Second One (2014) – was much better as it tried to be ironic and aware of its own absurdity. With Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!, the makers have upped their game considerably in terms of how insane it all is and by throwing away the rule book entirely (this is perhaps the only movie where you’ll hear the line, “There’s sharks… in space!”). The sharks literally pop up out of nowhere: inside buildings, on staircases, through windows, and memorably, in the President’s secure underground bunker. With no thought to logic or any consideration for providing some level of working coherence, the movie races through each preposterous scene in Thunder Levin’s script with all the intended mayhem of a five year old with ADHD.

It’s a movie that’s incredibly, ridiculously stupid… and yet, by going balls out in terms of how absurd it can be, the movie actually attains a degree of charm that the previous movies never managed. It’s also laugh out loud funny in a way that doesn’t alienate the viewer, or have them shaking their head and groaning in despair. Instead, the laughs come thick and fast because of all the preposterous antics going on, and it’s clear the makers have just decided to make the movie as bizarre and reckless as they possibly can. Returning cast members Ziering, Reid and Scerbo play it as straight as they can, while there’s a plethora of cameos – Jerry Springer, Chris Jericho, Jedward, Lou Ferrigno, Jackie Collins, and Ne-Yo to name but a few – that adds to the fun, and the low rent special effects show no signs of being improved upon. With the potential for yet another episode to come, it’s hard to think how much more barmy this series can get.

Rating: 4/10 – as each movie improves on the last, Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! is (currently) the series’ zenith and nadir combined, and shows that its makers have a firmer grasp on what makes these movies so successful; still terrible though in many, many, many ways, by trading on its own idiocy the movie makes a virtue of being extremely silly and defiantly farcical.

Careful What You Wish For (2015)

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Careful What You Wish For

D: Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum / 91m

Cast: Nick Jonas, Isabel Lucas, Paul Sorvino, Dermot Mulroney, Graham Rogers, Kandyse McClure, Leon Pridgen, Kiki Harris, David Sherrill, Kevin L. Johnson

Doug Martin (Jonas), along with his mother and father (Harris, Sherrill), live in the small town of Lake Lure. During the summer, Doug works at a local bar with his best friend, Carson (Rogers). Carson’s aim is to find Doug a girl (or girls) he can make out with, but Doug hasn’t had much success with girls in the past, plus he also finds Carson’s approach too desperate, not to mention off-putting. Focusing on his work, Doug’s rather staid life is thrown for a loop when new neighbours move on next door. Elliott Harper (Mulroney) is a self-made millionaire with a trophy wife, Lena (Lucas). Doug is instantly attracted to Lena but keeps his distance, watching her when he can. Lena notices him but appears unperturbed by his behaviour.

One day, Doug is in his room when he hears a cry from the road outside. He rushes out and finds Lena standing beside her car, scared of something inside. It turns out to be a spider; Doug gets rid of it and Lena thanks him. Later that night, he finds Lena waiting outside his home, sheltering from the rain having locked herself out. She persuades him to help her get back in by breaking a basement window. In the Harpers’ kitchen, Lena seduces Doug and they have sex several times during the night. The next morning, Lena tells Doug that he can’t tell anyone about what they’ve done in case Elliott finds out.

At the same time that he and Lena take every opportunity to be together, Elliott employs Doug to help him renovate a sail boat he’s recently purchased. One day, the three of them go out on the boat and Doug sees bruising on Lena’s face. A succession of minor injuries culminates in Lena calling Doug from the hospital to come get her. Now completely afraid, Lena gives Doug an untraceable mobile phone so they can be in contact with each other. A little while later, Lena texts Doug saying she’s done something terrible. When he goes with her to her home, he finds she’s killed Elliott by smashing his head in with a fire extinguisher.

Convincing Doug that the police won’t believe it was a case of her defending herself, Lena lets him come up with the solution: to take Elliott’s body out on his boat, make it look like the head trauma happened there, and then set fire to the boat. But when Elliott’s remains are discovered, and it becomes clear that Lena stands to inherit ten million dollars from her husband’s death, the arrival of an insurance investigator, Angie Alvarez (McClure), begins to make life very uncomfortable for both of them.

Nick Jonas in Careful What You Wish For

If you’ve read the above synopsis, then by now you’re probably thinking something along the lines of “The wife’s up to no good” or “”It’s all a big frame up”, or even “Jesus, are they still making these kind of movies?” The correct response to all three suppositions is “Yes”, but the most important thought you could possibly have about Careful What You Wish For is: “Why am I watching this in the first place?”

Sadly for the efforts of all involved, the choice of title and tagline lend themselves far too easily to rejoinders such as “Careful what you wish for – you might get it”, or “His second mistake was reading the script”, or some such variation. It’s not that the movie is bad – which it is – it’s that this is a movie that doesn’t have one original idea to offer, and throws in one of the most badly handled “twists” in recent memory, all in service to a plot that was probably old before the movies were invented, and which has been done to death ever since. The question then becomes, not why is this movie so bad, but why was this movie made in the first place?

It’s hard to believe that the makers of Careful What You Wish For thought that their movie could be successful given it’s a rehash of a story told so often before that as soon as Lena makes her first appearance – the now hackneyed shot of a tanned, sandalled foot as its owner gets out of an expensive car – the rest of the movie falls into place, ticking all the required boxes and ending up like the cinematic version of predictive text. What doesn’t help is that everything is so deliberately signposted, it wouldn’t be too unfair to say that a blind person could see what was going to happen.

So with a screenplay by Chris Frisina that doesn’t allow the viewer to be anywhere near one step ahead, it’s left to Rosenbaum’s patchy direction (one minute she’s interested in what’s going on, the next she’s busy draining the tension out of the whole movie), and the performances of Jonas and Lucas to rescue things. But neither of them are up to the task. Jonas (yes, he is one third of the Jonas Brothers) is clearly trying to step up from being a teen heartthrob and gain some credibility as a serious actor. However, he’s got some way to go, particularly in scenes that require some degree of confrontation where he just looks uncomfortable (and the movie takes every opportunity for him to be shirtless or flashing his behind). Worse though is Lucas, whose wooden performance is, in places, simply embarrassing.

With only some pretty visuals and the performance of Sorvino to recommend it, the movie is further encumbered with a score by Josh Debney and the Newton Brothers that’s allowed to overwhelm certain stretches of dialogue, and which isn’t even that rewarding to listen to. Rogier Stoffers’ photography is proficient but bland, and the pace is often too slow for the thriller elements to have the proper effect. All in all, this is the kind of movie that’s been done better elsewhere, but not quite as poorly as it’s been made here.

Rating: 3/10 – dreary and hopelessly obvious, Careful What You Wish For is a movie that doesn’t seem to want to impress anyone at all, and which remains unconvincing throughout; if an hour and a half of tedium is what you’re looking for, then step right up – but don’t say you weren’t warned.

Ant-Man (2015) and the Problem with the Marvel Cinematic Universe

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And so we say farewell to Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a place audiences have become incredibly familiar with in the last seven years. It’s been a wildly successful run so far: including Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Marvel has made eleven movies and reaped over eight and a half billion dollars worldwide. Their movies make up the most successful franchise ever… and with Ant-Man and a further ten movies making up Phase Three due between now and July 2019, it’s clear that title isn’t going to be relinquished anytime soon.

Ant-Man

But while Ant-Man is pleasantly entertaining, and features possibly the best supporting turn in any Marvel movie – stand up, Michael Peña! – it’s also the most formulaic and predictable, from its opening scene set in 1989 and featuring an amazingly youthful Michael Douglas, to its introduction of Scott Lang (a criminal with a moral backbone), to the nefarious activities of villain Darren Cross and his attempts to replicate the work of Dr Henry Pym, to Scott’s friends/sidekicks, to the revelation that Pym is estranged from his daughter Hope (not really!), to Scott’s easy acceptance of Pym’s recruitment of him, to his quickly established command of the Ant-Man suit, to the foiled capers, and the eventual success of Cross in emulating Pym’s work. It’s a Marvel movie, true enough: safe, non-controversial, carrying a faint whiff of po-faced seriousness in amongst all the goofy humour, and sticking close to the established Marvel movie template, all the way down to the post-credits teaser for Captain America: Civil War (2016).

Ant-Man isn’t a bad film. In parts, it’s quite spirited and enjoyable, and there are clear indications that Edgar Wright knew what he was doing before Peyton Reed inherited the director’s chair (the toy locomotive derailing silently could only have come from the mind of the co-creator of the Cornetto Trilogy). The special effects are superb, with the 3D conversion (especially in the IMAX format) proving particularly immersive and impressive. But the story is bland, and so are the characters. When you have a cast that includes the likes of Douglas, Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Anthony Mackie and Peña, surely it would be a good idea to have them do something more adventurous and original than try to steal a suit (no matter what it can do). Even the humour, usually something that Marvel gets right, feels tired and derivative of other Marvel movies.

Marvel's Ant-Man..Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd)..Photo Credit: Zade Rosenthal..? Marvel 2014

And it’s this derivation, this close sticking to the perceived required template that is leading Marvel astray, leaving only Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) as their most fully realised and effective movie so far. With each stand-alone movie having to fit into the larger Marvel universe (an issue Guardians didn’t have to worry about), it’s clear that these entries lack the attention to their own stories that would allow them to be more distinctive. As it is, the similarities keep on coming: Iron Man fights another robot or batch of robots, Thor fights a race intent on destroying either Asgard or just about everything, Captain America acts as a moral compass while performing acrobatics with his shield, and both Avengers movies see the group fighting off overwhelming hordes of attackers (while also laying waste to whichever city they happen to be in). And the Hulk is sidelined because they can’t work out what to do with him.

Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and there’s obviously more than a few of them – will suggest that the movies are delivering almost exactly what they want, with all their in-jokes and easter eggs and cameos, and those post-credit scenes that keep people in their seats right until the very end of the movie, but the formula is already showing signs of becoming tired. Ant-Man was the project that prompted Marvel and producer Kevin Feige to go ahead with the whole Cinematic Universe idea; how sad then to see that the movie is less than the sum of its parts, and doing just enough to raise a smile or a jaded bout of wonder.

But maybe there is hope. In amongst the two Avengers movies (three if you count Civil War) and the Guardians and Thor sequels, there are some hopefully different movies coming, with new characters – Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Captain Marvel – and maybe, just maybe the promise of a new direction for the whole Universe. It would be great to see these characters carry Marvel forward into Phase Four and in doing so, offer audiences new experiences rather than the fatigue-ridden outings we’ve started to see in the last couple of years. Let’s hope so, anyway.

Rating: 6/10 – saddled with the kind of storyline and plot that would be more at home on the small screen, Ant-Man never lives up to its “Heroes don’t get any bigger” tagline; in many ways a kind of contractual obligation, it skimps on depth to provide the most lightweight and undemanding Marvel movie yet.

Trailer – The Good Dinosaur (2015)

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After taking a year off in 2014, Pixar are back this year with two new movies – it’s like having two Xmases. Inside Out has already charmed both critics and audiences alike, and by the look of The Good Dinosaur, it’s pretty certain that Pixar have come up with another winner. The story of what might have happened if a meteorite hadn’t hit Earth sixty-five million years ago, and the unlikely relationship that develops between an Apatosaurus named Arlo and a human child, this has attracted criticism for the way that Arlo looks against the photo-realistic background – check out the shot of leaves in the rain – but however he looks this is probably going to tug at the heartstrings just as effectively as the beautifully compiled montage in Up (2009).

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

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Fifty Shades of Grey

D: Sam Taylor-Johnson / 125m

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Victor Rasuk, Luke Grimes, Marcia Gay Harden, Rita Ora, Max Martini, Callum Keith Rennie

Ten things that Fifty Shades of Grey has taught us:

1 – When you’re a successful multi-millionaire businessman (at age 27), you can attend board meetings and never have to say a word.

2 – When you’re a dowdy English Lit. student, you can be awkward and behave embarrassingly, and still attract a successful multi-millionaire businessman (who’s 27).

3 – When a successful multi-millionaire businessman that you met the day before, turns up at your place of work and asks for help in buying rope and cable ties and other restraints, it doesn’t need to be a cause for alarm.

4 – When a roommate asks about your “secret relationship”, it’s perfectly okay to ignore her concerns and carry on seeing the successful multi-millionaire businessman cable tie buyer.

5 – When a successful multi-millionaire businessman tells you he doesn’t share his bed with anyone, it’s not necessarily an indication that you’ll have problems in the relationship.

6 – When a successful multi-millionaire businessman wants you to sign a contract that means you can’t say anything about your relationship with him, it doesn’t mean that he wants to control your life, or pressure you into letting him flog you on a regular basis.

7 – When a successful multi-millionaire businessman shows you his Red Room, full of whips and chains and suspension equipment, there’s no need to run a mile as he’s just showing you his hobby room.

8 – When you visit your mother and the successful multi-millionaire businessman you’re unofficially having a relationship with, turns up out of the blue and pouts a lot, the correct response is to shrug off his obvious neediness and be flattered.

9 – When negotiating a contract with a successful multi-millionaire businessman it’s always best to read the small print, that way avoiding any possibility of his hand touching any part of your internal anatomy.

10 – When a successful multi-millionaire businessman ties you to a bed and blindfolds you, moaning uncontrollably before he’s even done anything will always enhance the experience.

DAKOTA JOHNSON as Anastasia Steele and JAMIE DORNAN as Christian Grey in "Fifty Shades of Grey".

Rating: 3/10 – dire on so many levels, with redundant characters in redundant situations and scenarios spouting repetitive, redundant dialogue, Fifty Shades of Grey only has a sleek visual look and some judicious editing to recommend it; with sex scenes that have all the eroticism of a home improvements show, and with its leads struggling to make either of their characters appear sympathetic or credible, this is one fantasy world that should be avoided at all costs.

Mini-Review: The Face of an Angel (2014)

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Face of an Angel, The

D: Michael Winterbottom / 100m

Cast: Daniel Brühl, Kate Beckinsale, Valerio Mastandrea, Cara Delevingne, Corrado Invernizzi, John Hopkins, Genevieve Gaunt

Thomas (Brühl) is a documentary filmmaker who becomes interested in making a movie about the media circus surrounding the trial for murder of student Jessica Fuller (Gaunt), who, with her boyfriend, is accused of killing her roommate. He meets journalist Simone Ford (Beckinsale), and she provides him with the background material he needs in relation to the murder and the people involved. As Thomas begins to look into the case he finds himself focusing on the ways in which the spotlight has caught Jessica in its gaze, and how the media have lost sight of the victim. He determines to make his movie about this (perceived) injustice, and begins to interview the various players.

In doing so, Thomas meets a young English student, Melanie (Delevingne). She helps him with introductions within the community that Jessica is part of, but by this stage he’s already finding it difficult to write his script, and his frustration has led to him drinking heavily and taking drugs. When Thomas is introduced to Francesco (Invernizzi), who appears to know too much about the murder, and who Thomas believes is involved, it leads him to try and solve the mystery of the murder, and what exactly happened to Jessica’s roommate. But Thomas finds himself increasingly adrift in the town where the trial is taking place, and begins to have trouble sifting reality from fantasy, as his drink and drug use causes him to become desperate to find the truth.

Face of an Angel, The - scene

Michael Winterbottom’s career has always been an interesting and very often challenging one. He’s a director who’s unafraid to take risks – 9 Songs (2004), The Killer Inside Me (2010) – and his ability to genre hop and still maintain an impressive track record of movies, is unimpeachable. However, he does sometimes trip up, and for every 24 Hour Party People (2002) there’s a Genova (2008), and sadly, despite the movie’s real-life background and inspiration – Barbie Latza Nadeau’s book Angel Face – The Face of an Angel falls into the latter category.

While it’s refocused look at the Amanda Knox trial gives the movie a sense of immediacy, it’s overwhelmed by the decision to make Thomas’s gradual emotional and intellectual disintegration more important than the story he’s looking into. The movie’s initial examination of the machinations and narrow-sighted approach of the media soon gives way to Thomas’s increasingly fevered, personal investigation, and the possibility that Francesco is the real killer. Alas, by doing so, Winterbottom and writer Paul Viragh commit the same sin they’re seeking to expose at the beginning, and lose sight of the victim as well. What doesn’t help is that Thomas, despite Brühl’s best efforts, is charmless and unlikeable, and this makes it difficult for the audience to engage or sympathise with him. Beckinsale is underused, while Delevingne delivers a fresh, natural performance as Melanie.

Rating: 4/10 – unbearably arch at times, with the character of Thomas continually placed in situations where he’s clearly out of his depth, The Face of an Angel is an unnecessarily glum, and surprisingly tedious, outing from the usually reliable Winterbottom; the location photography is a much-needed bonus, and the basic idea is sound, but in its execution, the movie strays too far from its own agenda.

Safelight (2015)

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Safelight

D: Tony Aloupis / 83m

Cast: Evan Peters, Juno Temple, Christine Lahti, Kevin Alejandro, Jason Beghe, Ariel Winter, Will Peltz, Don Stark, Joel Gretsch, Ever Carradine, Meaghan Martin, Gigi Rice

California, the Seventies. Charles (Peters) is seventeen, attends high school, has an absent mother, a deceased older brother, a seriously ill father (Beghe), legs that cause him difficulty in walking, and a job working in the diner at a truck stop. One night he sees a teenage girl named Vicki (Temple) accosted by a man called Skid (Alejandro). Charles intervenes and threatens Skid with a baseball bat. Skid is amused by Charles’s attitude and drives off. Over the next few nights, Vicki – who is a prostitute – comes into the diner for coffee, and she and Charles begin a fledgling relationship.

Meanwhile, Charles decides to enter a school photography competition. For his theme he picks the lighthouses of the California coast but his disability stops him from driving. However, when he mentions his idea to Vicki she volunteers to drive him to each location. With each successive trip they grow a little bit closer, and Charles introduces Vicki to his father and his boss at the diner, Peg (Lahti). She impresses them, so much so that Peg invites Vicki and Charles to a girls’ night at a local bar. They dance together for the first time, and later, Vicki takes Charles back to the hotel room where she lives (and which Skid, who’s her pimp, doesn’t know about).

Some time later, Charles persuades Vicki to visit her estranged family: mother Lois (Carradine), and younger sisters Kate (Winter) and Sharon (Martin). The visit doesn’t go as well as Charles had hoped, with recriminations on both sides, and it leads to Vicki disappearing. When Skid begins asking Charles if he’s seen her, he can honestly say no, but Skid makes it clear he’ll find her, no matter what. Charles completes his entry for the photography competition, and goes back to his regular life at the truck stop. It’s when Skid finally does locate Vicki that things take a desperate turn, one that will either bond them together forever, or part them irrevocably.

Safelight - scene

Slow moving but character driven, Safelight is a contemplative look at how two teenagers (Vicki is eighteen) form a relationship while viewing themselves as outsiders, Charles because of his physical condition, Vicki because of her occupation. It’s an often wistful tale, with sterling performances from Peters and Temple, and assured writing and direction from Aloupis.

But for every positive footstep the movie makes there’s an annoying misstep – sometimes in the very next scene – as Aloupis tries to explore aspects of both lead characters’ lives that don’t immediately add to the central storyline or overall plot. A case in point is the harassment Charles receives at the hands of three bullies. It serves to highlight just how difficult his life is, and the problems he has to face, but it all seems contrived and unnecessary, as if having legs that don’t work properly isn’t enough. It also leads to a scene where Vicki arrives in the nick of time and scares off the bullies with a handgun that she conveniently has in her bag – as if that’s nothing more than the writer/director adding in a bit of wish fulfilment to perk up the audience.

Vicki’s visit to her family is another area in which the script dares to travel where it has no need to go. By the time of the visit, Vicki has already told Charles about her upbringing, and her mother’s abusive boyfriend, so any information we glean has been rendered redundant, and the whole thing isn’t helped by an awkwardly judged performance by Rice as the mother doing her best not to feel guilty at failing to protect her daughter. It leads to the necessary break up of Charles and Vicki, but still it seems like an afterthought in the scriptwriting process.

Thankfully, these missteps don’t hurt the bulk of the (short) running time, but they do seem like intruders, disrupting the movie’s flow and causing the viewer to stop short. Away from these errors of judgment, Apoulis is on firmer ground when dealing with the nascent relationship between Charles and Vicki, and garnering the aforementioned sterling performances from his leads, and in particular, from Alejandro. Where Peters gives Charles a diffidence and lack of confidence that makes him immediately sympathetic, Temple takes Vicki in the opposite direction, making her too worldly-wise yet with a streak of tough vulnerability that she can drawn on when needed. The two characters complement each other, and Peters and Temple display a winning chemistry. At odds with their more structured performances, Alejandro is a sweaty, broiling, unpredictable Skid, his manic movements and unnerving laughter leaving the viewer uncertain as to what he’s going to do next (it sometimes feels as if even Alejandro didn’t know). The movie also picks up some energy when he’s on screen, a valuable counterpoint to the considered perspective offered by Peters and Temple.

At its heart, of course, the movie is an unconventional love story, and it’s here that it’s at its most effective. While the idea of two professed outsiders finding common ground isn’t unusual in the movies, what Aloupis has done is to make a virtue of Charles’ emotional reticence, and Vicki’s need to be loved for herself and not just her body (which leads to an uncomfortable and telling moment in Vicki’s motel room). With their relationship falling into place so neatly and plausibly, Aloupis moves the supporting characters around with ease, eliciting strong performances from Lahti and Beghe, and showing a flair for spare, unshowy dialogue. The desert landscapes and coastal cliffs are beautifully photographed by DoP Gavin Kelly, and Charles’s photographs of the lighthouses and Vicki are rendered in wonderful black and white by Darrell Lloyd, making the movie a visual treat at times and surprisingly poetic.

Rating: 7/10 – some narrative flaws stop Safelight from being more accomplished, but there’s lots to enjoy here, from the performances to the writing, and all backed by an evocative visual style that keeps the drama from becoming too gloomy; while some elements may be predictable to seasoned viewers it’s Apoulis’ approach to the material that keeps it interesting.

Meet Me There (2014)

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Meet Me There

D: Lex Lybrand / 93m

Cast: Lisa Friedrich, Micheal Foulk, Dustin Runnels, Jill Thompson, Megan Simon, Jack Jameson, John Gholson, David Laurence, Bob Swaffar

Ada (Friedrich) and Calvin (Foulk) are in a committed relationship but there’s a problem: Ada, despite wanting to, is unable to make love with Calvin. She tries to, but every time she does she becomes uncomfortable and stops. Calvin is understanding and makes no effort to pressure her, mainly because Ada has recurring flashbacks to scenes and images from her childhood, fragments of memory that appear to be affecting her ability to have sex, but which she is unable to decipher.

As these fragments are from Ada’s childhood – a childhood she has very little memory of – Calvin suggests that they visit her hometown of Sheol, Oklahoma in an attempt to find some answers. Ada agrees and they make the journey to where Ada grew up. Along the way, Calvin raises the point that Sheol is another name for Hell; Ada replies that it was. When they arrive, they stop at a gas station where two local men (Jameson, Gholson) challenge and intimidate Calvin, eventually running him off with the threat of being shot. He and Ada travel on to the road on which she lived, but when they get to where her home should be it’s no longer there; nor is there any evidence it was ever there.

Confused, Ada and Calvin go to Ada’s aunt Lindsay (Thompson). Aunt Lindsay proves to be unhelpful and aggressive, and Ada and Calvin seek help at the local church where they encounter the Reverend Woodward (Runnels). Woodward tells Calvin that people come to Sheol to die by their own hand, and it’s his job to help them through it. When Ada and Calvin leave the church they find their car has been set on fire. As they try to figure a way of leaving Sheol, they find themselves pursued through the woods by some of the townspeople. They manage to avoid them and head back to the church. Reverend Woodward agrees to show them a way out of town through the woods, but when they reach a stream, events take an unexpected turn for the worse…

Meet Me There - scene

Beginning with a prologue that sees two strangers meet an airport, then tracking their journey to a field outside Sheol, Meet Me There is an independent horror movie that – prologue over – takes its time in establishing its two central characters and building an eerie mood that, by the movie’s end, hangs like a pall over the material. It’s a confident approach by screenwriters Brandon Stroud and Destiny Talley, allowing the drama and the ever-growing sense of unease felt by Ada and Calvin to permeate each successive scene with increasing intensity. The script is also canny enough to take Ada’s haphazard memories and use them as a kind of McGuffin, with their importance eventually gaining less and less traction as the movie advances. Instead, the mystery of Sheol takes over, and the couple’s nightmare grows more pronounced.

By focusing on the mood of the piece, Stroud and Talley, along with multi-hyphenate Lybrand, have created a sombre and chilling tale of small town paranoia and appeasing sacrifice that is far more effective than its low budget origins would suggest. As Ada and Calvin’s initially hopeful journey to Sheol begins to give way to feelings of suspicion and terror, Lybrand and his writers do their best to ensure that Ada and Calvin’s reactions lie within the bounds of credibility, and that the actions of the townspeople never seem arbitrary but set within the parameters of the mystery that envelops them.

The imperilled couple are played with a large degree of understanding and skill by Friedrich and Foulk; not only are they believable as a couple, but their performances – which could so easily have sailed into the stratosphere named hysterical once they reached Sheol – remain considered and restrained in comparison to most other low budget horror movies where characters are chased through the woods or threatened with imminent death. Here, Ada and Calvin react and behave in a way that isn’t too stylised or removed from recognisable, understandable behaviour, and as they find themselves drawn ever deeper into the mystery of Sheol, both actors maintain the solid performances they’ve provided up ’til then.

They’re aided by Lybrand’s slightly off-kilter cinematography. Not exactly a new way of doing things, it’s still an effective way of highlighting the strangeness of Ada and Calvin’s situation and is used with careful attention to the scenes it’s used in. Otherwise the visual look of the movie doesn’t stray too far from a natural, straightforward approach that serves the majority of scenes well, and avoids any unnecessary frills. And with Lybrand serving as the movie’s editor, the movie is quite well assembled as well, though some shots are held for a little longer than is needed, especially those involving Runnels (best known as WWE wrestler Goldust).

A little less successful in terms of characterisation is the role of aunt Lindsay, well acted by Thompson, but so edgy and manic that her appearances threaten to undermine the carefully wrought suspense and low-key menace that otherwise makes the movie so quietly potent. Her facial appearance is also very distracting, and when she’s on screen the movie’s formidable mood is blunted. The sound too is mostly less than satisfying – it sounds as if everything was recorded with tin cans strapped to the front of the boom mic’s. But the sound isn’t a complete disaster as on occasion it adds to the overall mood, and on those occasions is ably supported and enhanced by Mark Daven’s creepy original score.

Rating: 7/10 – an above average entry in the low budget horror movie stakes, Meet Me There is an often intriguing movie that is held back from being more successful by a few budgetary constraints; that said, its strange disposition and increasingly doom-laden storyline has far more going for it than other movies of a similar ilk.

Trailer – The Revenant (2015)

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After his audacious, Oscar-winning Birdman: or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Alejandro González Iñárritu turns his attention to a story – based on real events – that takes place in America’s uncharted wilderness in the 1820’s. Leonardo DiCaprio is the frontiersman betrayed and left for dead by his best friend (played by Tom Hardy), and whose fight for survival following a bear attack looks to be as harsh and as gripping as conditions at the time would have merited. The supporting cast includes Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter and Lukas Haas, and the spectacular visuals are courtesy of Iñárritu’s long-time cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. All in all, it makes The Revenant look like a must-see (and a shoo-in for a slew of awards).

The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? (2015)

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Death of Superman Lives

D: Jon Schnepp / 104m

With: Tim Burton, Kevin Smith, Jon Peters, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Colleen Atwood, Wesley Strick, Dan Gilroy, Steve Johnson, Rick Heinrichs, Derek Frey, Nicolas Cage (archive footage), Jon Schnepp

In 1993, producer Jon Peters purchased the rights to Superman from the Salkinds (makers of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies), and approached Warner Bros about making a new movie entitled Superman Reborn, from a script by Jonathan Lemkin. Lemkin’s script was later rewritten by Gregory Poirier, but although Warner Bros were happy with it, in 1996 Kevin Smith, creator of Clerks (1994), was asked by Peters to write a script for “the fans” – but with three provisos: Superman couldn’t be seen flying, he wasn’t to wear his usual outfit, and he had to battle with a giant spider in the final act. Smith agreed to Peters’ terms and produced a script he titled Superman Lives, and which was based on The Death of Superman comic book storyline.

Smith’s script was accepted and Tim Burton, Peters’ first choice as director, came on board. He immediately jettisoned Smith’s script and brought in Wesley Strick to rewrite it. Nicolas Cage signed on to play Clark Kent/Superman, while Peters sought Kevin Spacey for the part of Lex Luthor, Courteney Cox for Lois Lane, and Chris Rock for Jimmy Olsen. The movie went into pre-production in June 1997, with Rick Heinrichs brought in as production designer. While various artists were hired to provide drawings of alien beasts, Krypton, and the main characters, Cage attended a costume fitting that was overseen by Colleen Atwood and Burton, and which brought an entirely new look to the character of Superman.

Strick produced his rewrite, emphasising Burton and Cage’s idea of Superman as an outsider, making him more of an existentialist. However, the cost of making Strick’s script was prohibitive, and Warner Bros asked Dan Gilroy to contribute a further version that would reduce the cost. Gilroy did so, but by this time Warner Bros were having a less than successful time at the box office, with many of their movies failing to make their money back. By this time, April 1998 (two months before the movie’s original planned release), $30 million had been spent on the production without anything to show for it. Warner Bros decided to put the film on hold, and Burton left to make Sleepy Hollow (1999).

Peters continued to try and get the project resurrected and offered it to several directors, none of whom accepted the challenge. In 1999 another script was written by William Wisher Jr with input from Cage, but in June 2000, Cage withdrew from the project, and despite further efforts by Peters to get his Superman movie made, the whole idea was abandoned in favour of a new approach in 2002.

Death of Superman Lives - scene

The question in the title, The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?, is surprisingly easy to answer: Peters and Warner Bros wanted to repeat the success of Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) while at the same time abandoning the very special qualities that made Superman so unique a character. It was a movie doomed to fail from the beginning because, as Smith correctly asserts, it was being made by people who had no feel for Superman or his place in comic book history. By taking Superman, one of the most iconic superhero figures of all time, and removing most of the traits that made him so iconic, Peters et al were practically guaranteeing their movie’s failure.

Those of you who have seen Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) will know just how bad a Superman movie can be, but under the auspices of Peters, a man who thinks giving Superman a makeover is an acceptable way forward, Superman Lives was always bound to founder. Hearing him talk about the movie it’s clear that whatever previous success Peters may have had in the past it’s of no relevance to the project at all. At one point he instructed Smith to include a scene at the Fortress of Solitude where Brainiac, the movie’s villain, would fight two polar bears. When Smith asked the reason for this, Peters’ response was, “They could be Superman’s guards” (Smith and Schnepp’s reaction to this is priceless).

Here, Smith is a vocal critic of Peters and the script he was asked to write (and he’s been equally critical elsewhere), and he makes several important points about the production’s inherent flaws. But nothing can prepare you for the sheer absurdity of Nicolas Cage’s costume fitting, where he and Burton try to make insightful remarks into the character but without ever finishing any of their thoughts or sentences. While Cage sports an awful shoulder-length wig as Superman, it’s actually nothing compared to the brief scene in which we see him as Clark Kent, dressed as if he’d just stepped out of a thrift store and looking like a beachcomber.

Atwood talks at length about the difficulties in coming up with a new costume for Superman, and the movie looks at this process in some depth, along with interviews with several of the concept design artists (many of whom did their work with little in the way of context to go by) that illuminates the ramshackle nature of the pre-production period. Burton, wearing his customary sunglasses, and still unable to finish a sentence that contains more than ten words, is a frustrating interviewee, vague on several points and misunderstanding several of Schnepp’s questions. Against this, everyone else, even the dreadfully misguided Peters, responds to Schnepp’s enquiries with candour and sincerity, all of which makes this examination of one of recent cinema’s most well-known follies an absorbing and fascinating watch.

Rating: 8/10 – there’s more to Peters’ doomed project than is covered here, but The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? covers the salient points with admirable clarity; having Cage’s recollections as well would have rounded things off nicely but considering Burton’s reticence, it’s maybe not much of a surprise that he didn’t take part.

Mini-Review: We’ll Never Have Paris (2014)

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We'll Never Have Paris

D: Jocelyn Towne, Simon Helberg / 92m

Cast: Simon Helberg, Maggie Grace, Melanie Lynskey, Zachary Quinto, Alfred Molina, Jason Ritter, Fritz Weaver, Dana Ivey, Ebon Moss-Bachrach

Quinn (Helberg) is a florist who’s also a bit of a hypochondriac. He’s also in a long-term relationship with Devon (Lynskey), his high school sweetheart. Encouraged by his optometrist father Terry (Molina), he decides to ask Devon to marry him. But when he announces his intentions to his assistant, Kelsey (Grace), it prompts her to reveal her feelings for him.  Confused by this revelation, Quinn seeks advice from his best friend, Jameson (Quinto), but it all leads to Quinn having second thoughts about matrimony. Devon takes it badly and leaves him. Believing that he needs to explore other relationships, he starts seeing Kelsey, but her behaviour becomes distressing to him and he distances himself from her.

Quinn’s attempts to regain Devon’s trust and forgiveness but it all falls flat. She moves to Paris, and when Quinn finds out – and despite the continued attentions of Kelsey – he decides to pluck up the courage and follow her there in an effort to win her back. When he does he finds Devon has forged a friendship with a Frenchman called Guillaume (Moss-Bacharach), and is planning to spend some time with his family. Quinn follows her there but his visit is a disaster and prompts him to return to the US and put his relationship with Devon behind him. But he learns that it’s not all over…

We'll Never Have Paris - scene

Best known for his role as Howard Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory, Simon Helberg is to be congratulated for writing, co-directing and starring in a romantic comedy that a) sees him as an object of lust and b) has attracted a good cast. However, somewhere along the way, Simon Helberg the writer seriously undermined Simon Helberg the actor, and in doing so was in cahoots with Simon Helberg the co-director, for Quinn the character is one of the most irritating creations seen in recent years. Quinn is a nebbish, an ineffectual, stuttering idiot who isn’t so much easily led as emotionally vacant. His relationship with Devon is unconvincing – why would she love such a man when he’s so obviously gornisht helfn?

But even if Helberg the writer had given Helberg the actor a better role, he still would have let him down by failing to make his character funny or even halfway amusing. We’ll Never Have Paris is simply not funny – at all. Helberg’s script meanders from one poorly developed scene to the next, with spurious character motivations thrown in at random moments, and supposedly humorous situations allowed to peter out before they can achieve any relevance or resolution. Against this, Grace and Lynskey struggle to make anything of the material, with Lynskey particularly hamstrung by a role that requires her to be continually forgiving in the face of Quinn behaving (repeatedly) like an ass. Only Molina comes out of it all with any dignity intact, popping up at the beginning and again at the end in what is effectively a cameo role, his cheery demeanour and impish behaviour showing how it should be done.

Rating: 3/10 – dreadful, and lacking in anything remotely resembling dramatic or comedic acuity, We’ll Never Have Paris is sluggish, implausible stuff that is a struggle to sit through; Helberg isn’t the writer he thinks he is, and lets himself down too often for this to succeed, leaving the viewer with the feeling that they’ve sat through a movie that was filmed from a first draft.

Woman in Gold (2015)

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Woman in Gold

D: Simon Curtis / 109m

Cast: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Brühl, Katie Holmes, Tatiana Maslany, Max Irons, Charles Dance, Antje Traue, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Pryce, Frances Fisher, Moritz Bleibtreu, Tom Schilling, Allan Corduner, Henry Goodman, Nina Kunzendorf, Justus von Dohnányi

Following the death of her sister, Maria Altmann (Mirren), who fled from Austria before the war and now resides in Los Angeles, finds letters that relate to an attempt to recover artwork that her family owned before it was stolen by the Nazis, and in particular, the famous Klimt painting, Woman in Gold (who in reality was Maria’s aunt Adele). This painting and several other items are on display in a gallery in Vienna, Maria’s birthplace. Wanting to get them back, she enlists the help of a friend’s son, lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg (Reynolds).

They travel to Vienna – against Maria’s initial wishes – but find that the country’s minister and art director are unwilling to hear her case. The Klimt painting is regarded as a national treasure, and Maria is told that it was given to the gallery in Adele’s will. Schoenberg, aided by Austrian journalist Hubertus Czernin (Brühl), discovers that it wasn’t Adele’s property in the first place, but even though this evidence is presented to the Austrian officials, and a hearing takes place, Maria’s claim is denied. Unable to challenge the ruling because the cost is too prohibitive, Maria and Schoenberg return to the US.

Some time later, Schoenberg is browsing in a bookstore when he sees an art book with the Woman in Gold on the cover. It gives him an idea but Maria is against pursuing the claim any further. He manages to persuade her to move forward, and using precedents relating to retroactive art restitution claims, begins the process of suing the Austrian government for the return of the artwork. The case goes all the way to the Supreme Court, where the case is ruled in Maria’s favour. But it still means she and Schoenberg need to return to Vienna to resolve the claim completely. Maria refuses to go, and Schoenberg goes by himself. There he pleads their case to the art restitution board, a panel of three who are the last hurdle in the attempt to get the artwork returned.

Woman in Gold - scene

If you’re already aware of the case of the Woman in Gold, then you’ll know how the movie ends, but in many ways the outcome – which most people could accurately predict – isn’t the focus here, but the way in which notions of family and heritage are portrayed via the flashbacks to Maria’s youth, and the resonance they have in the present day.

The modern day scenes, while adequately presented and lensed in a way that adds a sheen to events, are moderately effective and benefit greatly from the performances of Mirren and Reynolds. But they’re also largely perfunctory, a predictable set of events and occasions that tick all the appropriate boxes: investigation, doubts, bureaucratic indolence, setback, regrouping, pushing forward to a final resolution. It’s all handled with intelligence and precision but this actually robs the modern day scenes of any emotion. Despite Mirren’s semi-anguished, semi-determined portrayal, and Reynolds’ naïve yet stubborn lawyer, the movie seems too generic in these moments, as if it were following some kind of true story template.

Where the movie improves is in its recreation of the younger Maria’s family life, the relationship she has with her parents, and the myriad relatives and friends that populate their apartment. Here there’s life aplenty, and a sense of an age when life wasn’t about looking back. In contrast to the older Maria’s attempts to reclaim what’s rightfully hers, the scenes from her youth are redolent of ownership of both the times and the place they live in. It’s a microcosm to be sure, but one that you feel would have been replicated in many other homes as well. When that ownership turns to loss, and Maria and her husband Fritz make plans to leave Austria for the US, and in doing so leave their families to an uncertain fate, the emotional strain is clearly and effectively shown, giving those scenes the resonance the modern day story lacks.

That said, in the hands of Mirren and Reynolds, the quest to win back the Woman in Gold is more compelling than it seems from the basic qualities of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s script. Aside from some legal technicalities, it’s a straightforward, plainly told endeavour that would have seemed even blander without their participation. The rest of the cast are used to a much lesser extent, often to the point of appearing in what are mostly cameo roles (McGovern, Pryce, Dance) or in supporting roles that add little to the overall story (Holmes, Irons). But again its the cast who appear in the pre-war scenes (Corduner, Goodman, Traue, Kunzendorf) who come off best, and in particular Maslany as the younger Maria, who exudes a fortitude and an honesty that Mirren reflects with ease.

In the end, as a drama, Woman in Gold isn’t quite as effective as it wants to be, and in places is far too turgid to work properly. As an exploration of one woman’s desire to be repatriated with her family’s possessions it’s moderately engaging, and while the viewer will no doubt sympathise with her plight, this is a David vs Goliath tale that lacks an emotional core to keep the viewer on the edge of the seat, or railing against the impropriety of the Austrian officials. Much of this is due to Curtis’s matter-of-fact directing style, which is unfussy and lacks a level of sophistication that would have improved things immeasurably.

Rating: 6/10 – with two stories intertwined, Woman in Gold suffers from only one of them – and not the main one – being interesting; with a cast that appear to have been encouraged to play down their roles to augment the two leads, this is a movie that stutters to the finish line, and unconvincingly at that.

Trailer – The Finest Hours (2016)

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The Finest Hours is based on a true story, and is set in 1952, when a nor’easter off the New England coast tore two oil tankers – the SS Mercer and the SS Pendleton – in half. The ensuing rescue mission took place in some of the most extreme sea weather ever experienced, and was fraught with danger. The cast includes Casey Affleck, Chris Pine, Eric Bana, Ben Foster, and fresh from The Riot Club (2014), Holliday Grainger, and the cinematographer is Javier Aguirresarobe, whose work on movies such as The Road (2009), A Better Life (2011) and Blue Jasmine (2013), is a strong indication that this may well be one of the most strikingly shot dramas of 2016. But what is clear from the trailer is that this is one movie that might just eclipse The Perfect Storm (2000) for storm-drenched action.

Nancy Drew… Reporter (1939)

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Nancy Drew... Reporter

D: William Clemens / 68m

Cast: Bonita Granville, John Litel, Frankie Thomas, Dickie Jones, Mary Lee, Larry Williams, Betty Amann, Jack Perry, Thomas E. Jackson, Olin Howland, Sheila Bromley

When she takes part in a newspaper contest, headstrong Nancy Drew (Granville) doesn’t like the assignment she’s given, so instead she swipes another reporter’s assignment: to cover the inquest of a woman, Kate Lambert, who was recently found dead. At the inquest, it’s revealed that Mrs Lambert was poisoned by a photographic chemical, and suspicion falls on her companion, Eula Denning (Amann). Protesting her innocence, and stating that whoever killed Mrs Lambert would have left fingerprints on the tin the poison came in, Eula is still remanded in custody for trial.

Also at the inquest is a man with a cauliflower ear (Perry) who hits Nancy’s bumper as he leaves the courthouse. She follows him to the Lambert house where he tries to gain entry, but Nancy and a guard stop him. She tells her father, well-known and respected lawyer Carson Drew (Litel), all about it but he warns her to leave well alone. Instead, Nancy gains the help of her neighbour, Ted Nickerson (Thomas) and together they visit Eula in jail. She tells them the tin must still be in the house and gives them a clue as to where to find it. At the Lambert house, Ted distracts the guard while Nancy sneaks inside and finds the tin. But the man is also there, and tries to grab the tin but Nancy gets away from him. She takes the tin to the police station, but before she can hand it over, the man’s girlfriend (Bromley) steals it from her.

Nancy discovers that the man is a boxer, Soxie Anthens, and she also discovers the gym where he trains. She and Ted go there and further learn that Soxie’s girlfriend is called Miss Lucas. They track her down to the Beldenburg Hotel, where they also find out that she’s gone to the Mandarin Cafe. Nancy and Ted head over there, and find Soxie’s girlfriend in the company of Miles Lambert (Williams), the son of the murdered woman. Alerting Soxie to their being together, he causes a scene when he arrives at the cafe. During the altercation, Nancy learns enough about the tin and the murder to set a trap for the killer.

Nancy Drew... Reporter - scene

The second of four movies made in 1938-9 by Warner Bros. and based on the character created by Edward Stratemeyer, Nancy Drew… Reporter is a fast-paced comedy whodunnit that has time to pause for a musical interlude, and adds two young “whippersnappers” in the form of Ted’s younger sister Mary (Lee) and her friend in mischief Killer Parkins (Jones) to the mix as often as it can. It has a certain degree of innocent charm, and is largely inoffensive, but beneath the irreproachable content of the plot and storyline, the movie is surprisingly subversive.

When Nancy steals the reporter’s assignment, she later justifies her actions by stating that a good reporter should always do what it takes to get the story. It’s the best example of the lying and manipulation that Nancy displays throughout the movie in her efforts to catch the killer. She hoodwinks Ted on more than one occasion, traps her father into defending Eula thanks to a fait accompli, and blatantly lies in order to get the newspaper to print a fraudulent headline in order to flush out the killer. In her quest to uncover the truth it seems that Nancy will bend or break the rules in whatever way she needs in order to do so. And it’s noticeable that she rarely – if ever – apologises.

With its heroine proving almost as devious and deceitful as the bad guys, the movie carries on as if it hadn’t noticed at all that Nancy was so duplicitous, and of course, she wins the newspaper contest (though, to be fair, she declines the cash prize, but accepts the accompanying medal). There’s too much of this ironic counterpoint for the movie to be an entirely comfortable watch, with its moral compass being so broadly compromised. Of course, Nancy isn’t the only character in the movies to behave in such a way, but this is a character who was intended to encourage young girls to read more; what message are they meant to be getting when Nancy behaves as if the usual rules don’t apply to her?

Away from the dubious character of Nancy, there’s the small matter of the plot, which is very basic to say the least, and which advertises the villains straight away at the inquest. Usually, the killer is revealed in the final reel, but here anyone will be able to work out their identity well in advance, and this helps to dilute whatever drama or tension is inherent in the plot. In fact, there are times when the plot is so lightweight it’s almost gossamer thin. But the cast are entertaining to watch, with Granville and Thomas proving a good pairing, while Litel is kept firmly in the background, aside from an uncomfortable moment when he carries Granville off to bed and sings an awkward lullaby to her while also tucking her in.

Series’ director Clemens maintains a loose feel throughout and gives his cast enough room to indulge themselves when appropriate, and this happy-go-lucky approach makes the movie seem smarter and more energetic than it actually is, and despite the best efforts of screenwriter Kenneth Gamet. A mention too for editor Frank DeWar whose skill in the cutting room means the movie contains very little fat, and has a freshness to it even now, over seventy-five years since its release.

Rating: 6/10 – allowing for its (probably) unintentionally crafty heroine, Nancy Drew… Reporter is still an interesting, if flawed, take on the teen sleuth genre; bolstered by good performances, though with a mystery that even a blind person could work out, the movie is nevertheless a minor treat for fans of this type of movie, and of Granville in particular.

10 Best Explosions in the Movies

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Come closer – I want to tell you something. I love explosions in the movies. There, I’ve said it. And now that I’ve got that off my chest, let me explain why. It’s the level of devastation, pure and simple. The bigger the bang, the better the explosion. And there’s got to be a bit of a wow factor, both in the build up and the final detonation. If it’s just another car with the obligatory four sticks of dynamite wrapped around the fuel tank, then I’m not interested. The pyrotechnics have got to look impressive, so scale is often a deciding factor.

But most important of all – and it’s a consideration that a lot of movies get completely wrong – is the way in which it’s filmed and edited. Cast your mind back to The Specialist (1994), where Sylvester Stallone’s bomb expert has a hideaway that’s rigged to explode should the site be compromised. When it is, Stallone triggers his hideaway’s destruction and thanks to director Luis Llosa’s “smart thinking” the resulting explosions are seen mostly in close up and with little idea of which part of the compound is being destroyed. It’s a letdown, and more so because it should have been the high point of the movie; instead it’s a wasted opportunity that should have had a place in the following list.

The criteria then: the explosion has to be big and loud, and if possible, one of a kind, or in this writer’s opinion, the best of its kind. It should be an explosion that makes the viewer applaud the makers for their ingenuity, and balls-to-the-wall approach to blowing shit up. In short, it should make you want to watch it again – right away.

10 – Independence Day (1996) – The White House

In most lists of this sort, Independence Day would probably be higher up the ladder, but its iconic explosion involving the White House is obviously model work, and while it’s impressive model work, it’s still not real. But as noted, it is impressive, and even nearly twenty years on it’s still able to create a frisson of awe at seeing such a famous building reduced to rubble. With all the disaster movies that have followed since then, and with pretty much every famous landmark having been destroyed in the meantime, it’ll be interesting to see if Roland Emmerich and his special effects team can come up with an equally impressive explosive moment in Independence Day: Resurgence (2016).

9 – Die Hard (1988) – “You just blew up a building!”

With the police making a doomed attempt at retaking the Nakatomi Building, and being soundly thrashed by Hans Gruber’s “terrorists”, it’s down to John McClane to turn the tide. Lashing some high explosives to a chair and sending it down a lift shaft, the resulting explosion rips apart one of the lower floors of the building and sends a fireball back up the lift shaft. The effect of several windows being blown out is hugely impressive, and all the more so because the whole thing is a trick involving powerful camera flashbulbs and a superimposed shot of an actual explosion. So, not real either, but still so memorable that it had to be included in this list.

Die Hard

8 – Tropic Thunder (2008) – There goes the jungle

Things aren’t going too well on the set of Tropic Thunder, a movie based around the experiences of a Vietnam veteran. When one particularly poignant scene goes wrong, the director’s fit of apoplexy leads pyro expert Cody to believe he’s got the go ahead to set off the movie’s most expensive effect: a series of explosions that climb high into the sky and stretch for nearly half a mile. As an homage to a similar series of explosions in Apocalypse Now (1979), this is large scale destruction that is all the better for being real – at last! – and for being filmed from overhead to get the full effect. As an effect it’s terrific, but it is only jungle that’s been devastated, so this is one for the aesthetes.

Tropic Thunder

7 – Stealth (2005) – Escape from the hangar

In this terrible mix of military hysterics and AI nonsense, a mission to stop the “memory wipe” of a plane flown by a rogue computer system, Navy pilot Ben Gannon finds himself trapped in a hangar surrounded by gun-toting bad guys. So what’s a guy to do? Why, blast his way out through the hangar doors, of course. The resulting explosion doesn’t just vaporise the doors, it spreads a fireball that sends the bad guys hurtling through the air along with several vehicles. It’s an over-the-top moment that finally brings a semblance of life to a movie that has struggled to get airborne for most of its running time, and at last involves some real damage.

Stealth

6 – Lethal Weapon 3 (1992) – “Grab the cat!”

A bomb in a car in an underground car park proves to be a particular challenge for partners Riggs and Murtaugh, as another of Riggs’ bright ideas (to not wait for the bomb squad) literally blows up in their faces – along with the building the car park was underneath. Taking advantage of the city of Orlando, Florida’s need to see the back of their old, ugly City Hall building, the producers took a real building and levelled it to the ground in spectacular fashion. Some might argue that the amount of dust and debris obscures the building’s collapse, but this is an explosion that shows just what happens when a demolition is carried out to purpose.

Lethal Weapon 3

5 – The Dark Knight (2008) – Gotham Hospital

Having paid Harvey Dent a visit, the Joker starts to leave Gotham Hospital, and as he does so, he presses a remote control device that starts a series of explosions intended to destroy the building entirely. But once outside, the trigger malfunctions and the explosions stop. Bemused and baffled, the Joker tries again and again to restart the explosions, and finally he succeeds, levelling the building as he wanders off in his nurse’s uniform. A series of explosions that grow in size, and that contain a great deal of unexpected comedy, this is brilliant stuff, with Heath Ledger’s performance adding an extra layer of fun to the proceedings, and which is topped off – á la Tropic Thunder – with a gloriously framed overhead shot of the hospital’s demise.

Dark Knight, The

4 – The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) – A bridge, a tanker, a shootout – guess what happens next

Having stopped a tanker full of explosives from reaching its destination, recently amnesiac assassin Charly Baltimore must fend off the murderous intentions of bad guy Timothy as the timer on the explosives counts down to zero. Leaving Timothy wounded on top of the tanker she makes her escape with the aid of private eye Mitch Henessey, and with her young daughter in tow. The resulting detonation obliterates the bridge they’ve just crossed, and releases a fireball that races to incinerate the car they’re in. A mixture of model work and carefully positioned camera work, this is a big dumb loud explosion that fills the screen and feels like it should be lighting up the night sky and all surrounding areas. As it spreads it looks and sounds like an angry beast raging to cause more devastation, and is all the better for the sheer size of it all.

Long Kiss Goodnight, The

3 – Speed (1994) – Bus meets plane

Having made it to the airport, interrupted the live feed to the bomber, and got most of the passengers off, it’s now Jack Traven and Annie Porter’s turn to save themselves and leave the bus to do what Howard Payne has wanted it to do all along: blow up. As the bus slows down to that all-important fifty-mile per hour mark, it heads towards a taxi-ing plane, and at the magic moment, hits it. The bomb goes off, destroying the bus and with it, the plane. Shot from several angles, this has beauty and style to it, and is a great example of an audience not being let down by something they’ve been waiting a long time for. Satisfying and convincing.

Speed

2 – CutThroat Island (1995) – Dawg’s ship

With her villainous uncle Dawg despatched by a cannon ball, pirate Morgan Adams goes in search of William Shaw who’s trapped below decks with the water rising quickly. She frees him and together they make for the bow of the ship, just as a stray line of fire reaches the ship’s powder kegs. The first explosion blows a hole up through the centre of the ship, and as Morgan and Shaw dive to safety, the whole ship explodes at once, sending wooden debris everywhere. An incredible piece of pyrotechnics, expertly shot by extremely well-positioned cameras, and having a heft to it that most explosions don’t carry, this example – and despite the movie’s poor reception – makes for a loud, impressive bang that’s second only to…

Cutthroat Island

1 – Blown Away (1994) – That’s no gambling ship, that’s a bomber’s hideout

Confronting mad Irish bomber Ryan Gaerity in his dilapidated and abandoned ship, the Dolphin, bomb disposal expert Jimmy Dove gets the best of him but not before Gaerity has set in motion the destruction of the ship thanks to a complicated, sinister version of Ker-Plunk! Helped to safety by colleague Anthony Franklin, the two hurry along a short pier as the ship explodes behind them, section by section and with ever increasing force. The ne plus ultra of cinematic explosions, Blown Away‘s superb blast shattered windows up to five miles away, and even with the terrible inserts of Jeff Bridges and Forest Whitaker, remains the single most impressive piece of pyrotechnical destruction ever committed to celluloid. The sheer size and scope of it beggars belief, and the excellent positioning of the cameras means it’s all there to enjoy, every blast and concussive eruption. Over twenty years later, it’s still an awe-inspiring sight, and one that’s unlikely to be beaten.

Blown Away

Trailer – The Wolfpack (2015)

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A documentary about seven children – six brothers and one sister – who were home-schooled by their parents and rarely allowed out of their sixteenth-story, four-bedroom apartment except on strictly controlled trips, The Wolfpack is a startling look at the redeeming and transformative nature of movies, and how they enabled the Angulo children to overcome the limitations imposed upon them by their father. Despite the intriguing and fascinating subject matter, it’s likely that The Wolfpack won’t get the wide release it probably deserves, but it’s definitely one to watch.

Return to Sender (2015)

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Return to Sender

D: Fouad Mikati / 95m

Cast: Rosamund Pike, Shiloh Fernandez, Nick Nolte, Camryn Manheim, Alexi Wasser, Rumer Willis, Illeana Douglas

Miranda Wells (Pike) is a nurse aiming to transfer to another hospital and become a surgical nurse. She lives alone and has few friends beyond her colleagues at work. She also has obsessive-compulsive tendencies, preferring to use her own pens, and work and rest in a (mostly) clean environment. Unattached, she’s persuaded by a friend to go on a blind date. On the day in question she’s getting ready for her date when she realises someone is at her front door. Thinking it’s her date, she tells him he’s too early but allows him in. When she becomes uncomfortable with his being there, Miranda asks him to leave. Instead, he locks the front door and assaults her, eventually raping her in the kitchen.

The man, whose name is William Finn (Fernandez), is caught, tried and sent to prison. Miranda’s recovery is aided by her father, Mitchell (Nolte), but her ordeal has affected her to the point where her transfer is denied and she finds her right hand trembles uncontrollably without warning. She experiences outbursts of anger, and is unable to move from her home because no one will buy a house where a rape occurred. Some time later she decides to write a letter to Finn. The letter comes back to her marked ‘Return to Sender’, but Miranda continues to send Finn letters until on one returned letter he writes “You win”. Keeping all this from her father, Miranda travels to the prison where Finn is incarcerated.

Her visits increase until Finn is able to tell her that he is being released. He asks her if she would want to see him once he’s out; she says yes. When Finn arrives at her home she is in the middle of having some work done on the outside, work that Mitchell has been trying to help her with. Miranda gets Finn to do some of the work as recompense for what he did, but when her father finds out he’s been there, Miranda has to persuade him that it’s all part of her coming to terms with what happened and being able to move on. Mitchell is disgusted by her attitude, and stays away, leaving Miranda and Finn by themselves…

Return to Sender - scene

An odd mix of character study and thriller, Return to Sender is a colourless movie that tries to squander a very good performance from Pike, plays flatly throughout, and shies away from anything too controversial in its efforts to tell its story. It’s a dull movie as well, with Patricia Beauchamp and Joe Gossett’s script lacking any real punch or tension, and it’s further undermined by Mikati’s weak direction.

With all this it’s a wonder that Pike that comes off as well as she does, elevating her performance above and beyond the production’s attempts to stifle her. It’s the main reason why the movie doesn’t work as well as it should, as from the beginning it almost strives to make Miranda unappealing and unsympathetic, so much so that when she is raped, the shock isn’t there for the viewer; it makes it all the harder to feel the appropriate sadness and horror for her. Even in the following scenes, where we see her battered and bruised in hospital, Miranda’s vacant stare is tellingly depicted by Pike but lacks the emotional heft that should come with it. Thanks to Mikati’s matter-of-fact approach to the scenes, Pike is left adrift, emoting in a way that should have audiences hoping Finn gets his just desserts – and then some – but which in truth does nothing of the sort. Instead, Finn disappears from the movie while Miranda spends her time aimlessly watching TV or trying to control her hand tremors.

As this section takes some time to work itself through, Miranda’s sudden decision to write to Finn seems like a turn out of left field, a way of propelling the plot forward but without any appreciable conviction. It does lead to some misdirection (or confusion, depending on your point of view), as Miranda and Finn begin to bond in prison, and the possibility of her attempting to extract some kind of revenge becomes apparent. And yet, it’s also possible that some form of emotional, even physical relationship may develop between them, and it’s all thanks to Pike’s glacial features and the way in which she makes Miranda a blank slate to look at. Again, without Pike’s performance, the movie – and this part of it – wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective as it is, and this despite any attempt to support the actress and the presentation of her character.

Fernandez fares even worse, with the reasons for Finn’s actions glossed over in a couple of mumbled sentences. As a character, Finn is too “wet” for the actor to have any chance of doing anything worthwhile with him, and Fernandez looks uncomfortable in most of his scenes, as if he’s realised early on that nothing he does will make Finn hated or pitied, or more than just a necessary plot device. Nolte coasts along, putting in the minimum effort required, and there’s an awkward scene where he’s required to fall over a porch swing and be helped up by Pike; the redundancy of the moment is shocking.

With so little effort made to sell the plot and with Pike stranded as if she’s been imported from another thriller entirely, the movie fails in other areas as well, not least in its look, which is like that of a slightly more expensive TV movie. As mentioned above, it leaves the movie feeling colourless, and there’s little going on in most scenes that grabs the attention (even the rape scene is shot in such a way that you become too aware of the choreography and the camera positions). And the movie ends so abruptly, the average viewer will be thinking, “Really? That’s it?” With all this to detract from potential enjoyment, it’ll be a fortunate viewer who takes anything more from this movie than Pike’s sterling performance.

Rating: 4/10 – muddled, poorly assembled, and lacking in focus, Return to Sender is a misfire that seems to have achieved such a status deliberately; Pike – if you haven’t guessed by now – is the only reason for watching, but good as she is, it’s a recommendation that should only be taken up after a lot of consideration and forethought.

10 Reasons to Remember Omar Sharif (1932-2015)

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Omar Sharif will always be remembered for his distinctive look: the thick black moustache, the large eyes and mesmerising stare, and his mischievous smile. While his career began in 1954 with the Egyptian movie Devil in the Sahara, it wasn’t until he made his slow appearance out of the haze in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) that stardom caught up with him and thrust him into the international limelight. Over the next fifty years he was pigeon-holed as the romantic foreigner, charming and urbane, whether playing real life characters such as Che Guevara, or fantasy roles such as Captain Nemo. He made movies in almost every genre, and was surprisingly adept at comedy, and if his career never maintained the heights he achieved in the Sixties, he was still an actor who was always interesting to watch (even if the movie wasn’t).

For my part, I saw Omar Sharif at a showing of the 4K restoration of Lawrence of Arabia at the London Film Festival in 2012. I was in the second row, roughly ten feet away from him, and as he spoke about David Lean and the making of the film, his gaze focused on mine, and for most of his reminiscing he looked directly at me. It was a fantastic moment and one I will treasure forever.

Omar 1

1 – Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

2 – Genghis Khan (1965)

3 – Doctor Zhivago (1965)

4 – The Night of the Generals (1967)

5 – Funny Girl (1968)

6 – The Last Valley (1971)

7 – The Horsemen (1971)

8 – The Baltimore Bullet (1980)

9 – The Rainbow Thief (1990)

10 – Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran (2003)

Omar 2

No Way Jose (2015)

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MrsMiracle_DVD_Sleeve

D: Adam Goldberg / 98m

Cast: Adam Goldberg, Ahna O’Reilly, Eric Siegel, Anna Belknap, Pat Healy, Greg Pritikin, Gillian Jacobs, Emily Osment, Brendan Hines

Musician Jose Stern (Goldberg) is fast approaching forty and is reduced to playing children’s parties with his band, the Borges. He’s also engaged to Dusty (O’Reilly), and though they haven’t set a date, they have decided on where to go for their honeymoon: Mexico (as you can’t drive to Hawaii). When best friends Gabe and Kate (Siegel, Belknap) suggest that they hold a joint birthday party for Jose and their young daughter Violet, Jose is initially ambivalent, but thanks to Dusty’s urging, agrees to the idea. Later that night in their new apartment, Dusty downloads an app to her phone that brings to light something about Jose that she doesn’t know. For Dusty it proves to be a deal breaker, despite Jose’s explanation of what she’s learnt.

Their relationship over, Jose crashes on Gabe and Kate’s couch. Kate goes out to work while Gabe stays at home to look after Violet and their infant son, Fred, and provide piano lessons to children. They row a lot, but in-between times, Jose manages to get them to give their opinions on what to do next. Their answer (based on having two impressionable children in the home): frog Dusty and move on. But Jose can’t quite do that, even though he won’t contact her. Instead he hooks up with an old girlfriend, Penny (Jacobs), when she calls him out of the blue, but the evening they spend together proves disappointing.

With his friends, Lawrence (Healy) and Mickey (Pritikin), Jose begins to put Dusty behind him (though he still feels strongly about her). When he learns that Dusty has decided to cash in their honeymoon tickets and go by herself, Jose – who doesn’t fly – follows her there in a last ditch effort to win her back. But when he gets there, he gets a surprise, one that’s exacerbated by Dusty telling him something unexpected…

No Way Jose - scene

Adam Goldberg’s fourth directorial feature since 1998 (the last one, I Love Your Work, was released in 2003), No Way Jose is an acerbic, drily witty look at the pitfalls of modern relationships. Co-written with Sarah Kate Levy, Goldberg’s take on the middle-aged man-child coming to terms with commitment has a couple of comedic set pieces – Jose struggling to talk to Dusty while strung out on Ativan; Kate coming home and yelling coarsely at someone on the phone – but is mostly a sedate, considered drama that  features some great performances while never quite saying anything too profound about the differences between men and women.

From the outset it’s clear that Jose is out of his depth, somehow having reached the age of forty without getting married or having children. His musical career is in the doldrums, and while his relationship with Dusty seems like a dream come true (you know she’s far too good for him), his cavalier attitude and need for approbation marks him out as an outsider, jogging along but without much purpose or direction. Faced with having to grow up and find some meaning in his life, Jose’s reaction is to cling even tighter to his sense of freedom, even though losing Dusty has made him begin (without realising) to reassess what he wants from Life.

Goldberg is a quirky, unpredictable actor, but here he tones down his usual schtick to give us a character who’s more unsure than confident, and who’s only a few steps away from being a complete loser. As such it’s hard to sympathise with him completely as a lot of his problems are caused by a lack of consideration of others; he’s his own worst enemy. By making Jose so insecure, and with so little ambition, Goldberg has painted himself into a bit of a corner. It doesn’t take long to realise that Jose’s coasting along is robbing the movie of a good deal of drama, and with that realisation, most viewers may find themselves less interested in how things play out. It doesn’t help either that Dusty is sidelined once their relationship is over, and disappears until the movie’s end, when she’s required to respond to Jose’s lovelorn melancholy in a way that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen more than a few romantic dramas.

With Jose being less than completely interesting, it falls to the supporting cast to provide most of the entertainment. It’s here that Goldberg and Levy have done the movie a favour, investing the supporting characters with enough humorous foibles to offset the moodiness of the central storyline. Siegel and Belknap are terrific as a warring couple continually trying to score points off each other and offloading their parental responsibilities on each other at every opportunity (the phrase “Violet’s done a bad thing” will linger in the memory). Healy and Pritikin also provide sterling performances, their characters’ idiosyncrasies played to the fore and fully recognisable as the kind of friends most of us have despite our best wishes or intentions.

On the distaff side, O’Reilly is a pleasure to watch as Jose’s engaging other half, and she makes enough of an impact that her enforced departure from the story feels calamitous. As the “coconut water” drinking Penny, Jacobs soon turns into the ex we’d all like to forget, but instead of enhancing the drama by having Jose sleep with her (or just be seen with her by Dusty), Goldberg elects to have Jose refuse her overtures and not go through with anything, reaffirming his inability to take chances.

Where Goldberg does get things right is in his choice of music to support the emotional beats within the movie – the songs that play in Jose’s car shortly after Dusty dumps him, including One Is the Loneliest Number, are inspired – and his choice of cinematographer, Mark Putnam, his go-to guy when making features. Putnam is great at coming up with shots that provide maximum effect, and guided by Goldberg, keeps things continually interesting within the frame. It all serves to make the visual aspect of the movie more compelling than expected.

Rating: 7/10 – flawed but still mostly enjoyable, No Way Jose is an indie drama with comedic overtones that tells its simple story without much embellishment or pretentiousness; alas this makes for a movie that feels somewhat underdeveloped, and while there are good performances throughout, there’s too little of substance going on to improve things.

Mini-Review: Spanish Affair (2014)

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Spanish Affair

Original title: Ocho apellidos vascos

D: Emilio Martínez Lázaro / 98m

Cast: Clara Lago, Dani Rovira, Carmen Machi, Karra Elejalde, Alberto López, Alfonso Sánchez, Aitor Mazo

When Rafa (Rovira) meets Amaia (Lago) and they end up in bed together, the lovestruck barman is shocked to learn that Amaia is from the Basque region. As he is from Seville in Andalusia, and has never left the area, and there is an historical animosity between the two regions, Rafa is at first heartbroken when she leaves the next morning (and not on the best of terms). But when he realises Amaia’s left her purse behind, he takes the bull by the horns, and decides to travel to Amaia’s hometown of Euskadi in an attempt to win her back. On the bus ride to Euskadi he meets Merche (Machi) who takes a liking to him and offers her help should he need it during his stay. When Rafa finds Amaia she’s less than pleased to see him, but his romantic persistence has unexpected consequences: when he meets Amaia’s father, Koldo (Elejalde), he’s forced to claim to be of Basque heritage.

Keeping up this claim leads to Rafa’s being accepted within the community, but this acceptance makes his attempts to woo Amaia even more difficult as the charade requires him to behave as a Basque (and sometimes speak like one). With Koldo remaining suspicious of Rafa’s “origins”, he persuades Merche to be his “mother”. But when Amaia – who before going to Seville had been engaged to marry – decides to go ahead with the ceremony, Rafa is faced with a difficult choice: to reveal his true identity, or leave for good.

Spanish Affair - scene

The most popular Spanish movie at the Spanish box office, Spanish Affair – that’s enough of the word “Spanish” – is a light, frothy, romantic comedy delight that, in its first hour, is one of the funniest movies of recent years. Even with all the in-jokes and political references that are specific to the Basque region, there’s so much for international audiences to enjoy that some viewers may be in danger of suffering from injured ribs – it really is that laugh out loud funny. And even though the movie does run out of steam in its efforts to provide the standard romantic comedy outcome, there’s still plenty to enjoy, as the cast, helped immeasurably by Lázaro’s effortless direction of the script by Borja Corbeaga and Diego San José, have as much fun with the material as the audience.

Making his feature debut, TV presenter Rovira makes for an appealing, charming (though hapless) Lothario, and his comic timing is so acute it makes an extended set piece around the unfortunate ringing of a mobile phone one of the movie’s highlights. Lago, with her severe fringe cut and large, expressive eyes, is a fiery, passionate Amaia, while the undervalued (in Spanish cinema, at least) Elejalde steals the show as the Andalusia-hating Koldo – just watch his reaction when Rafa is called upon to recite the eight family names that will convince the old man of his Basque heritage. Shot on location, Gonzalo F. Berridi’s cinematography adds a sheen to the proceedings that enhances the mise-en-scene greatly, and the whole thing is rounded off by a sprightly score from Fernando Velázquez.

Rating: 8/10 – at times the sound of the viewer’s own laughter may overwhelm some of the often priceless dialogue, but it’s a small price to pay for so much enjoyment; with a sequel due in 2016, Spanish Affair is an absolute gem that sparkles so brightly you might need to wear sunglasses.

Mr. Holmes (2015)

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Mr. Holmes

D: Bill Condon / 104m

Cast: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Porter, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, Roger Allam, Frances de la Tour, Philip Davis, John Sessions

In 1947, Sherlock Holmes (McKellen), now 93, lives in a Sussex farmhouse, and is looked after by his housekeeper, Mrs Munro (Linney), and her young son, Roger (Porter). He keeps bees and uses royal jelly as a means of improving his memory, which has deteriorated in recent years. A recent trip to Japan in search of supplies of prickly ash, a plant also known for improving the memory, has been undertaken with a view to ensuring that Holmes can complete one last project before he becomes unable to: to write a true account of his last case as a detective. Unhappy with the way Dr Watson portrayed those events, Holmes is struggling to remember the details of the case. Urged on by the interest shown by Roger, Holmes renews his efforts to pin them down.

His recollections take him back thirty years, after Watson has gotten married and their partnership has dissolved. He’s visited by Thomas Kelmot (Kennedy), a man worried about the behaviour of his wife, Ann (Morahan). Following two miscarriages, Ann Kelmot has become withdrawn; her husband has advised her to take up a musical hobby but now that has become an obsession, and even though he has forbade her from continuing her lessons with glass harmonica teacher, Madame Schirmer (de la Tour), he has discovered Ann is still visiting her. He suspects the music teacher of some kind of plot and wants Holmes to investigate.

Back in the present, Holmes takes Roger under his wing in and introduces him to his apiary. Roger persists in asking about Holmes’ last case; his enthusiasm prompts Holmes to make more of an effort to remember Ann Kelmot, including following her to Madame Schirmer’s and from there to various places before he approaches her in a public garden. Their conversation becomes confrontational but Holmes reveals the depth of his knowledge about her situation, and the effect the two miscarriages has had on her.

Mrs Munro, meanwhile, informs Holmes that she is planning to move to Portsmouth and work in a hotel; it will mean taking Roger with her. Roger doesn’t want to go, but when Holmes suffers a collapse shortly after, they are forced to stay. While he remains bedridden on the advice of his doctor (Allam), Roger takes care of the bees. He also finds a grey glove in Holmes’ study, a memento from the case of Ann Kelmot that Holmes can’t remember keeping or having. As Holmes remembers more about the case he also recalls the event that led to his retirement as a detective, and the reasons behind Watson’s subsequent involvement. But his remembrance of the past is put into perspective when he finds Roger has been stung by dozens of bees, and the boy’s life is hanging in the balance…

Mr. Holmes - scene

Dealing with themes of sadness and loss and regret, Mr. Holmes presents us with a portrait of a master detective beset by echoes from his past. It’s a richly detailed depiction of times long past, anchored by a superb performance from McKellen, and redolent of a bygone age, with its frock coats and steam trains and pre-suffrage gender politics. Expertly marshalled by Condon – reunited with McKellen for the first time since they collaborated on Gods and Monsters (1998) – the movie is a flawless recreation of two periods in English history that still exert a strong fascination: the post-Victorian era and the years immediately following the cessation of World War II. There’s also Holmes’ trip to Japan and the sight of the devastation wrought on Hiroshima. The historical trappings carry so much weight it’s almost as if the audience has been transported back with Holmes and are experiencing things themselves.

With the period detail proving so effective, it’s the twin mysteries on offer – what really happened during Holmes’ last case, and what is causing the deaths of his beloved bees – that unfortunately stop the movie from becoming even more memorable (an ironic outcome for a movie that deals with the loss and despair in losing one’s own memory). The story of Ann Kelmot has all the initial hallmarks of a classic Holmes tale, with its anxious husband and a heroine seemingly under the influence of a scheming criminal. But the truth, when Holmes finally remembers it, is far more prosaic than that, and while presented with some emotional impact, still doesn’t seem as devastating as Holmes makes out. Maybe it’s seeing it from the perspective of an old man trying to make sense of things that remain just out of reach that leaves the viewer with a sense of detachment: if Holmes can’t access those recollections and connect with them, how are we to do so?

But the movie, even with its handful of slightly underdeveloped storylines, has several aces up its sleeve that mitigate and make up for the paucity of the plot and the general structure. These are the performances from McKellen, Linney, Porter and Morahan. As already mentioned, McKellen is superb as Holmes, fragile, distressed, playful, curmudgeonly, afraid – tuning his portrayal of the master detective to such a fine degree that it’s both an acting and organic masterclass; he’s believable and convincing throughout, particularly when he’s trying to downplay the public misconceptions about him that are thanks to Watson’s writings. As Holmes’ housekeeper, Linney adopts a country dialect with precision and aplomb, and imbues Mrs Munro with a stoic dignity that stops her from expressing her misgivings about the relationship between Holmes and her son. As Roger, Porter gives another of those naturalistic, not-even-trying performances that it seems most child actors can produce at the drop of a hat; his scenes with McKellen are affecting and perfectly modulated. And as the focus of Holmes’ disturbed memories, Morahan is quietly magnificent as the troubled Ann Kelmot, her tear-rimmed eyes a more than adequate depiction of the turmoil her character has fallen prey to.

The movie has an often stately, measured pace, and some viewers may find the early scenes a little hard going, but once Holmes begins to remember events following the arrival of Thomas Kelmot at Baker Street, Condon increases the rate at which things begin to happen, until the final thirty minutes are as engrossing as any modern day thriller. With Martin Childs’ meticulous production design being augmented by often beautiful cinematography from Tobias A. Schliessler, and a delicately evocative score courtesy of Carter Burwell, there’s so much to enjoy here that audiences who stay the course will be rewarded by a movie that quietly steals up behind them and warms their hearts.

Rating: 8/10 – modest in intention and design, Mr. Holmes is a small-scale triumph of historical veracity and emotional honesty, focusing as it does on the melancholic suffering of a man for whom his intellect, now foundering, defined him; full of deceptively powerful performances, this is one historical drama that resonates long after it’s ended.

The Absent One (2014)

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Fasandraeberne

Original title: Fasandræberne

D: Mikkel Nørgaard / 119m

Cast Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Fares Fares, Pilou Asbæk, David Dencik, Sarah-Sofie Boussnina, Danica Curcic, Nikolaj Groth, Søren Pilmark, Beate Bille, Marco Ilsø, Philip Stilling, Kristian Høgh Jeppesen, Johanne Louise Schmidt, Hans Henrik Clemensen, Peter Christoffersen, Katrine Rosenthal

At a police awards ceremony, cold case investigator Carl Mørck (Kaas) is accosted by a retired policeman who begs him to look into the case of his two children who were both killed in 1994. Mørck refuses, and later the man commits suicide, prompting Mørck, supported by his partner Assad (Fares) to look into the case. They learn that the siblings both attended the same boarding school, and that there was a call to the police – made by a young woman – alerting them to the crime. With this as their only clue, Mørck and Assad visit the school where they learn that the young woman was probably Kimmie Lassen (Boussnina); but unfortunately for them she hasn’t been seen in twenty years.

Learning also that Kimmie’s friends at the time included now reputable businessmen Ditlev Pram (Asbæk) and Ulrik Dybbøl (Dencik), and that the man who confessed to the crime, Bjarne Thøgersen (Jeppesen), was represented by the best criminal lawyer in Denmark, Bent Krum (Clemensen), and only served three years in prison, Mørck and Assad sense a conspiracy. They visit Thøgersen who alerts Pram to the new interest in the deaths. Pram hires a man named Albjerg (Christofferson) to look for Kimmie, while Mørck endeavours to find her first. But an older Kimmie (Curcic) is also a very wary Kimmie, and with the help of her friend, Tine (Rosenthal), she manages to stay one step ahead of everyone when she becomes aware that people are looking for her. But Albjerg tracks her down, and though she gets away, she also has a run in with Mørck that leaves him bruised and battered.

Meanwhile, Pram and Dybbøl use their political contacts to put pressure on senior police in an effort to get Mørck and Assad taken off the case. Furious, Mørck confronts his immediate boss (Pilmark) and makes enough of a case from the evidence that he’s amassed to show that it should be pursued further, and that Kimmie Lassen holds the key to what happened twenty years ago. When she is finally caught by the police, it seems that Pram and Dybbøl’s arrest is only a matter of time. But Kimmie has other ideas: she escapes and goes after them herself, as much to kill them first, and as much again to make up for her involvement in the deaths of the young brother and sister.

Fasandraeberne - scene

As much a riveting crime thriller as its predecessor, The Keeper of Lost Causes (2013), The Absent One is another triumphal adaptation of a novel by Jussi Adler-Olsen. With almost everyone involved in the first movie returning to make this one, the movie is like a seamless addition to what is an ongoing series. The tone, the feel, the pace, and the sensibility of The Absent One is such that anyone who has seen The Keeper of Lost Causes can slip into the series’ bleak, gloomy mise en scene with ease, sure in the knowledge that what follows will be of an equally high standard, and equally as satisfying (if not more so).

There are several reasons for this, not least the taut, gripping screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel and his writing partner Rasmus Heisterberg. In distilling Adler-Olsen’s novel they’ve kept the focus on the ripple effect the murders have had over the years, as well as Mørck’s inability to let something go once he’s got a grip on it. The detective’s persistence and dogged nature – which are pretty much all he has to keep him going – is beautifully expressed through Kaas’s beleaguered performance. This is a man who keeps his pain externalised to stop it from eating away at him inside, but the payoff is a lack of compassion and sympathy for others; he only takes on the case in the first place because he can’t deal with the guilt of refusing the retired policeman. Kaas gives a wonderfully fractured portrayal of Mørck, growing further into the character and inhabiting him completely.

Ably supported by Fares, whose Assad is never a foil for Mørck, Kaas heads up a cast that never puts a foot wrong, even in the smaller roles. The script supports them all the way, assembling the pieces of the plot with skill and precision, letting the viewer glimpse the events of twenty years ago without spoiling the true nature of the killings, and allowing the mystery surrounding those killings to remain in place almost until the very end. It’s a bold, confident approach, and allows the tension inherent in the story to build to a quietly devastating denouement (and which puts Mørck through the ringer once more – but then he probably wouldn’t have it any other way).

Retaining his place in the director’s chair, Nørgaard keeps things tightly focused and highlights the psychological toll felt by Kimmie over the course of twenty years (she has a terrible secret of her own that, when revealed, is the most upsetting thing seen in either movie). It’s to Nørgaard’s credit that Kimmie’s humanity is never downplayed,  and in the hands of Curcic, she’s a character so far removed from her younger self (also extremely well played by Boussnina) that the sadness of her situation is almost palpable. (In a better world, she and Mørck would make for an interesting couple.)

While the villains of the piece aren’t as effectively drawn, their callous natures are given plenty of screen time, as well as the slow disintegration of their self-confidence and eventual hubris. Asbæk and Dencik are appropriately cold and uncaring in their roles, revealing the innate hostility towards others that privilege has bestowed on them, and providing strong counterpoints to Mørck’s own disdain for others. It’s all reflected in the somber, unforgiving violence and shadowy dangers that permeate the movie and which help to make it such a rewarding (if slightly downbeat) experience.

Rating: 9/10 – a sequel that is as equally good as its forerunner, The Absent One is a dark, atmospheric thriller that is as uncompromising as it is compelling; with two further movies in the pipeline, let’s hope that the makers can maintain the quality shown so far.

Trailer – The Martian (2015)

Adapted from the best-selling novel by Andy Weir and directed by the indefatigable Ridley Scott, this has all the hallmarks of a compelling, thrilling movie as Matt Damon’s stranded astronaut fights to stay alive long enough for him to be rescued. The novel was a real page-turner, and there was a very dark line in humour that hopefully has translated well to the big screen. With a great supporting cast that includes Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean, let’s keep our fingers crossed that Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard have made a pacy, heart-stopping thriller that will keep audiences glued to their seats.

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.

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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.

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