The Grand Seduction (2013)

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

Grand Seduction, The

D: Don McKellar / 113m

Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Taylor Kitsch, Gordon Pinsent, Mark Critch, Liane Balaban, Cathy Jones

After eight years of surviving on state benefits, the inhabitants of a tiny harbour in Newfoundland called Ticklehead, are given a potential lifeline when a multi-national company plans to build a chemical waste recycling plant there, and provide full employment for the community.  The catch?  Unless they have a resident doctor, the plans will fall through.  The stroke of luck?  A doctor, Paul Lewis (Kitsch) caught at an airport with cocaine and sentenced to a month’s community service as Ticklehead’s temporary medic.  When the locals, headed by Murray French (Gleeson) learn of his imminent arrival, they decide to spend the ensuing month doing their best to get him to stay full time and save their community.

To help with this, and because Lewis likes cricket, the villagers build a cricket pitch and pretend to be huge fans of the sport.  They also leave Canadian bills of increasing value where Lewis will find them, and on the understanding that if he feels lucky in Ticklehead he won’t want to move on.  By selling themselves and the harbour, the people of Ticklehead aim to make Lewis feel like an important and much needed part of the village.  They also monitor the phone calls he makes to his girlfriend, Helen, looking for clues about the things he likes so they can make his stay all the more amenable.  Murray even tries to get the local post office-cum-general store assistant, Kathleen (Balaban), to flirt with Lewis but she won’t do it.

As their plan begins to pay off, problems arise with the siting of the plant.  A “bribe” of $100,000 needed to cement the deal, and which human ATM Henry Tilley (Critch) attempts to raise by means of a loan, eludes them.  And the boss of the multi-national company decides to visit Ticklehead and see for himself that they have the required one hundred and seventy inhabitants needed to see the plant manned efficiently.  And Lewis’s relationship with Helen begins to unravel, as his enthusiasm for the harbour goes unreciprocated until he learns an unpalatable truth.  Murray and the rest of the villagers are overjoyed: now Lewis doesn’t have any ties.  But as ever, things don’t work out in quite the way they’d planned.

Grand Seduction, The - scene

A remake of Seducing Doctor Lewis (2003), The Grand Seduction is a great big, fluffy cardigan of a movie, a warm confection that elicits good-natured smiles from the viewer at practically every turn.  There is absolutely nothing new here and yet as is so often the case when something so familiar is performed with such confidence and affection, the experience is rewarding beyond any and all expectation.

And so it proves here, with Gleeson leading a cast that wouldn’t have been amiss in an Ealing comedy, and proving once again that ensemble casts representing a small community rarely ever disappoint.  If it reminds viewers of Local Hero (1983), then that’s no bad thing (and that movie carried the blueprint of Whisky Galore! (1949) firmly clutched to its chest).  It’s a fish-out-of-water movie too, with Kitsch’s bemused, deceived plastic surgeon all adrift at first, but finding his feet with ever-increasing confidence, and gaining a sense of purpose he didn’t have before.  Kitsch is better known for his action/fantasy roles but here he dials back the heroics to play a normal nice guy who may well have appeared colourless on the page, but who proves to be more sensitive than he seems in the beginning.

With the likes of Pinsent and Critch providing solid support – and a large portion of the laughs – it’s left to the ever dependable Gleeson to provide the movie’s dramatic backbone, imbuing Murray with the kind of rugged, roguish charm that wins over both Lewis and the rest of the villagers (even when they know he’s ‘playing’ them).  It’s the kind of role Gleeson could probably do in his sleep but he’s so effortlessly impressive it’s like observing a masterclass; he doesn’t put a foot wrong throughout.  He and the rest of the cast all help to elevate the material, making the slightness of it so trivial it’s barely worth mentioning.

As directed by McKellar, The Grand Seduction is an appealing piece of cinematic confectionery, its picture postcard locations photographed in all their roughhewn glory, and its (admittedly) lightweight construction proving a plus rather than the expected minus.  McKellar has the sense to go with the flow rather than try to make something different out of Ken Scott’s original screenplay (here adapted by Michael Dowse), and infuses even the smallest of scenes with both a painterly eye and a generous amount of good-natured, but not overwhelming sentiment.  It’s often a delicate balancing act, but McKellar demonstrates in scene after scene that he’s more than up to the task.  As a result, the movie never falters in its ability to entertain.

Rating: 8/10 – the kind of movie that makes a mockery of the phrase, “familiarity breeds contempt”, The Grand Seduction is a minor gem, and a movie that deserves as wide an audience as it can achieve; it may appear too whimsical for some, but that would be doing the movie a major disservice.

Poster of the Week – The Polar Express (2004)

Tags

, , ,

Polar Express, The

The Polar Express (2004)

Widely regarded as one of the quintessential Xmas movies, The Polar Express is a breath of digital capture fresh air, its sense of childlike wonder easily transporting its audience into a snow-filled fantasy land that should make even the coldest heart glow with wonderment.  Even if this early example of the animation format still looks a little too artificial in places (and faces), its charm wins out every time.

This particular poster gives a great sense of the astonishing journey ahead of the small boy who stands in front of the titular locomotive, his awestruck gaze held on its snow-flecked lamp and the searching, probing, powerful beam of light that bursts out from it.  It’s a light that points the way to an incredible journey, and heralds the trip of a lifetime.  For the boy, standing there with (no doubt) wide-eyed fascination, it’s an amazing dream come inexplicably true, and his stance reflects his amazement at the sight of the enormous, magnificent train in front of him.

The size of the train is, perhaps, deliberately exaggerated to enhance the fantastical nature of things, a way of highlighting the magical experience that lies ahead.  Its prominence is a powerful statement and oddly reassuring as well: whatever happens, and wherever it’s going, the Polar Express will get its passengers there no matter what.

But the train isn’t the whole of the image.  There’s the snowman, one arm thrust out as if in presentation of the train, its countenance both knowing and mysterious.  He’s saying, “Go on, step aboard, you won’t regret it”.  There’s the backdrop of the houses, all dark and pensive, waiting for the dawn to bring them to life.  And lastly there’s the tall tree on the left hand side, its branches reaching out to the falling snowflakes as if to catch them and thereby make itself beautiful.

With so many impressive, beautiful elements, it’s the tag line that caps everything off with perfect, heartfelt simplicity: “This holiday season… believe.”  It’s no wonder then that over the last ten years, so many people around the globe have done exactly that.

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

The Judge (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Judge, The

D: David Dobkin / 141m

Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Billy Bob Thornton, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, Ken Howard, Emma Tremblay, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, Grace Zabriskie, Denis O’Hare

Defence attorney Hank Palmer (Downey Jr) has made a name for himself by getting acquittals for some of the guiltiest defendants ever brought before the bench.  When his mother dies unexpectedly it means his returning home after twenty years and dealing with his estranged father, Joseph (Duvall), who’s the local judge.  On the day of the funeral, Hank is reunited with his high school sweetheart, Samantha (Farmiga) but he remains unable to bridge the gap that keeps himself and his father at a distance from each other.  Later that night, Joseph takes a drive to a nearby gas station to get some groceries.  When Hank gets ready to leave the next morning, he notices that Joseph’s car is damaged, as if it’s hit something.

Before his flight can take off, Hank hears from his older brother Glen (D’Onofrio) that the police are investigating a fatal hit and run from the night before and are talking to Joseph at the station.  Against his better judgment, Hank gets off his flight and heads to the station where he learns that the man who died was someone the judge had let off years ago only for the man to kill the girl he’d been stalking.  When blood is found on Joseph’s car that matches the dead man’s, the police arrest him.  Family tensions increase when Joseph decides to appoint local lawyer, inexperienced C.P. Kennedy (Shepard) to represent him instead of Hank.  But at his arraignment, where he’s committed for trial, the judge realises his mistake and asks Hank to take over his defence.

It emerges that Joseph has increasing memory problems and he can’t remember anything after he left the gas station and had to make a detour due to a flooded road.  As Hank begins to build his case, Joseph proves unhelpful and the two clash repeatedly.  At the same time, Hank learns that Samantha has a daughter, Carla (Meester), and that he might be the father.  With family issues coming to the boil over events that happened twenty years ago, along with a special prosecutor (Thornton) being appointed to try the case, Hank finds himself under growing pressure to find a way to meet all the demands being made of him, and solve the puzzle of what happened the night his father went for groceries.

Judge, The - scene

A family drama wrapped up in a courtroom drama, The Judge is the kind of movie that looks glossy, feels important (on its own level), and sounds impressive but is actually none of those things, being instead a kind of kitchen sink drama where so much is thrown in and very little is as compelling as it first appears.  Take, for example, the case of Hank’s brother Glen, who was a promising baseball player until an accident caused by Hank ended his career before it began.  It’s an issue that Joseph brings up a few times and is one of the sources of their estrangement, but neither of them have ever thought to ask Glen how he feels about it all (he’s actually made his peace with it but we don’t find this out until the end).

Likewise, the issue of whether or not Joseph deliberately killed the ex-offender is of secondary importance in comparison to the movie’s need to have him and Hank reconcile – and which takes place in the courtroom, and with everyone sitting back and letting them show that they really do care about each other etc. etc.  But will the audience care by this point, having already sat through over two hours of undercooked “woe is me” dramatics?  Because therein lies the movie’s biggest problem: Hank is too much the aggrieved party.  His marriage is heading for divorce, his colleagues across the courtroom floor have no time for him, he can’t make his relationship with Samantha work, he doesn’t understand his father at all, and he believes too much in his own talent to have an inkling of what humility is all about.  In short, he’s an arrogant prick, and even though he’s presented as charming and a bit of a “good” bad boy, and all this is meant to be attractive, especially with Downey Jr in the role, it’s a character we’ve seen too many times before to end up rooting for.

The judge’s motives remain muddled throughout, as he wavers between wanting to be honest and upstanding, and maintaining his legacy after forty-two years on the bench. Hank is a chip off the old block and all the arrogance can be seen in the way in which Joseph conducts himself, cleaving to his own idea of what’s right and wrong, and to hell with anyone else’s opinion.  The phrase, “two peas in a pod”, is perfect for them, but it doesn’t make for affecting drama, and there’s no tension at all.  We know what’s going to happen from the outset with these two and it involves re-found mutual respect and admiration, and a shared understanding of past events.  The movie is one big therapy session and it struggles to rise above the level of a predictable TV Movie of the Week.

Against this, Downey Jr and Duvall put in credible enough performances but fail to energise the material, and spar off each other so predictably it’s like filming by numbers.  Farmiga and D’Onofrio fare better but then their roles are smaller and they have less focus on them.  Thornton’s role is a step above a cameo but he makes the most of it even if it is a reprise of so many other roles where he’s had to be both smug and menacing.

Dobkin assembles things with a nod to almost every other small-town, local-boy-makes-good-then-comes-back-to-confront-the-issues-that-drove-him-away drama we’ve ever seen, and signposts pretty much every plot development with the excitement of someone who can’t wait to show off his next scene.  Carlinville is a pretty town, shot beautifully by Janusz Kaminski, but what we see of it is mostly restricted to the judge’s house, the courtroom and Samantha’s diner.  It’s a slightly claustrophobic effect and is rarely betrayed by a long shot.  Thomas Newman’s score provides standard support for the proceedings, but like so many other aspects of the movie, is never compelling enough to elevate matters.

Rating: 5/10 – competently made but lacking on so many levels – emotionally, dramatically, as a thriller – The Judge is one of those ideas that sounds great on paper but proves largely underwhelming once it’s transferred to the screen; if you’ve got actors of this calibre in front of the lens and they can’t make it work, then maybe it’s a movie that should’ve remained as just a great idea.

Kill Me Three Times (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Kill Me Three Times

D: Kriv Stenders / 90m

Cast: Simon Pegg, Sullivan Stapleton, Alice Braga, Teresa Palmer, Callan Mulvey, Bryan Brown, Luke Hemsworth

In the small Western Australian town of Eagle’s Nest, bar owner Jack (Mulvey) suspects his wife, Alice (Braga), is having an affair.  He’s a jealous man, and hires a “consultant”, Charlie Wolfe (Pegg), to find out if his suspicions are true.  Meanwhile, Alice has been chosen by dentist Nathan Webb (Stapleton) and his wife Lucy (Palmer) to be the substitute corpse in their plan to fake Lucy’s death and claim on her life insurance (Nathan has huge gambling debts that he needs to clear as quickly as possible).  When Wolfe provides proof of Alice’s infidelity – with garage owner Dylan (Hemsworth) who she plans to run away with – Jack wants her dead and asks Wolfe to take care of it.

Alice books an appointment with Nathan for later that day, and the Webbs decide it’s the perfect opportunity to put their plan into action.  When Alice arrives, she’s drugged  and put into the boot of Nathan’s car.  Lucy drives Alice’s car to a nearby quarry while Nathan heads there in his car, though he has to stop off at Dylan’s garage for some petrol first.  At the quarry, a mishap with Alice’s car sees it still end up in the water as planned, and the Webbs head back to the main road where, despite an attempt by Alice to get away, they put her in Lucy’s car, douse it in petrol and set light to it, and send it over the cliff edge.

Unknown to the Webbs, Wolfe has been following and taking photos of them.  When they reach a local beach house where the owners are away travelling (and where Lucy will hide out until the insurance money comes through), Wolfe sends Nathan an e-mail containing some of the photos he’s taken and demanding $250,000.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, local bent cop Bruce Jones (Brown), having seen Lucy’s car in flames at the bottom of the cliff has put two and two together and believes Nathan has actually killed her for the insurance money.  He blackmails Nathan for half the insurance money.

Back at the bar, Wolfe tells Jack that Alice is dead (though he keeps quiet about the details) and asks for his money.  It’s now that Jack discovers Alice has robbed him over three hundred thousand dollars he had in his safe.  He manages to put off paying Wolfe until the next day, but finds himself in even more trouble when Dylan turns up demanding to know where Alice is and what he’s done to her.  And while all that’s happening, Nathan agrees to meet Wolfe at the quarry to pay the blackmail demand…

Kill Me Three Times - scene

What follows on is an increasingly maze-like series of twists and turns and counter-twists that make Kill Me Three Times a hugely enjoyable and darkly comic thriller that picks up momentum after a slow start, and gleefully begins killing off its cast in ever more violent ways.  It’s a fine balancing act, mixing traditional thriller elements with a more extravagant comic sensibility, but without letting either ingredient overwhelm the other.  It’s the kind of off-kilter movie the Australians do so well and here, under the auspices of director Stenders, proves that they’re still more than capable of making this kind of movie and instilling it with originality and verve.

The movie’s chief asset is the script by first-timer James McFarland.  Structured in three parts – part one focuses on Alice’s murder by the Webbs, part two on the various back stories and how things move forward following Alice’s death, while part three ties things up neatly and in a nice big bloodstained bow – Kill Me Three Times avoids any potential pitfalls in its narrative by making its characters’ motivations quite clearcut and even relatable (whether you like them or not).  With such an investment made in the characters, the story is that much easier to accept and go along with, and despite an opening half hour where everything is established (and is necessarily slower than the rest of the movie), once all that is dispensed with, the movie becomes faster, funnier and more engrossing.

Behind the camera, Stenders – who made the criminally under seen Red Dog (2011) – shows a keen understanding and appreciation for the impulses driving the characters and elicits great performances from all concerned.  He’s also got a great eye for composition, highlighting the natural beauty of the Western Australia landscape and shoreline, and framing each shot with skill and conviction.  As a result the movie is often stunning to look at, his collaboration with very talented DoP Geoffrey Simpson paying off in dividends.

As the amoral psychopath Charlie Wolfe, Pegg is on fine form, inhabiting him with a carefree exuberance and just the right amount of bemused mirth.  As the observer of all the machinations and double-crosses and manipulations and blackmail going on, Wolfe is our eyes and ears, allowing us to see just how awful these people are – Alice and Dylan aside, though they’re not entirely innocent.  In a sense, his lack of artifice and straightforward approach to matters makes him seem less “evil” and more of an anti-hero.  Whichever way you view it, it’s still one of Pegg’s more enjoyable performances (and he gets the movie’s best line).

In support, Stapleton is great as the nervous, weak-minded Nathan (a million miles away from his turn as Themistocles in this year’s 300: Rise of an Empire), Palmer is suitably abrasive as his Lady Macbeth-like wife, and Braga earns the audience’s sympathy and support by virtue of being entirely likeable as the put-upon Alice.  Brown does glib menace with aplomb, Hemsworth makes dumb seem appealing, and Mulvey broods as if Jack’s life depends on it (which, actually, it does).  It’s a great ensemble cast, and you can see the fun everyone had making the movie coming out in the spirited and enthusiastic performances.

Kill Me Three Times won’t change anyone’s life, or inspire people to go on to do great things, but it is an entertaining and rewarding way to spend an hour and a half, and if it does so by shamelessly drawing in the viewer and keeping them hooked on what’s going to happen next, then that’s no bad thing, even if things do get (very) nasty and violent.

Rating: 8/10 – a hugely enjoyable romp that takes itself just seriously enough to make the thriller elements bitingly effective, Kill Me Three Times is at times happily “wrong” in all the right ways; with beautiful locations and a great cast clearly having a blast, this is strong, confident stuff that’s definitely worth seeking out.

CITIZENFOUR (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

CITIZENFOUR

D: Laura Poitras / 114m

Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Ewen MacAskill, Jacob Appelbaum, Julian Assange, Jeremy Scahill, Ben Wizner

In January 2013, while preparing to make the third in a series of documentaries looking at the US government’s continued attempts to restrict freedom of information and human rights – the other two movies are My Country, My Country (2006) and The Oath (2010) – director Laura Poitras was contacted by someone using encrypted e-mails.  The sender, who called themselves CITIZENFOUR, was very cautious in their approach but said they had access to files that proved the National Security Agency (NSA) was deliberately collecting and storing the e-mails, telephone calls, mobile (cell) phone calls and texts of millions of Americans through back door links to service providers such as AT&T.  Realising the importance of this information, she and the (then) anonymous contact agreed to proceed slowly so as to gain each other’s trust, and to avoid any intervention by the NSA.

Eventually, in June 2013, they agreed to meet in a hotel in Hong Kong.  Poitras took her camera along and it was there that she met Edward Snowden, a twenty-nine year old “infrastructure analyst” working for the NSA who had become concerned about the way in which the NSA’s surveillance programmes were being used.  Over the course of eight days, during which Snowden was interviewed by online reporter Glenn Greenwald and Guardian journalist Ewen MacAskill, he revealed the extent of the NSA’s illegal activities, its joint operations with other countries such as the UK, and the ways in which it carried out these activities.  With Snowden’s approval, Greenwald and MacAskill began to publish copies of files that he provided, and on June 9, Snowden made his identity public.

Shortly after, Snowden’s passport was revoked by US officials, and while the world’s media began to learn of the extent of the NSA’s intrusion into not only the lives of every American but the lives of millions of foreign nationals as well, Snowden sought a country that would give him asylum.  Thanks to the efforts of WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange, Snowden was able to leave Hong Kong, and after a time spent in the “no man’s land” of the international lounge at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, he was granted a year’s temporary asylum in Russia (which has been extended by another three years).  Meanwhile, the files he downloaded and made available to Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill continue to be published by the world’s media.

CITIZENFOUR - scene

The bulk of Laura Poitras’ fascinating and compelling documentary is taken up by the extended interview with Edward Snowden, in which he lays out the extent of the NSA’s “involvement” in the daily lives of every single American who uses a computer, a mobile phone,  and/or a telephone.  Even though we know the story by now – and even if we’re not aware of all the details – it’s still an intensely dramatic moment when Snowden reveals just how much of an intrusion is being carried out.  In a sense, the sheer size and scope of it all is mind-boggling, but it’s a tribute to Snowden’s casual intelligence that he presents the facts as concisely and eloquently as he does.  Anyone watching CITIZENFOUR will be left in no doubt that the NSA has been – and continues to – work illegally in the name of homeland security and the prevention of future terrorism on US soil.

Do the ends justify the means?  If it’s illegal in the first place, then clearly not.  But what CITIZENFOUR does so effectively is to show just how pervasive the NSA’s approach really is, how it liaises with other countries’ intelligence networks such as the  UK’s GCHQ, Australia’s ASD and Canada’s CSEC, and how even world leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel are not immune from being targeted.  With this in mind you have to question the reasoning behind the NSA’s practices and if anything will change in the long-term (most likely not) but as a document of record the movie is an important addition to the continuing struggle to retain our civil liberties wherever we are in the world.  It’s important for us to know what our leaders are doing, and it’s equally important that we don’t just accept their excuse that it’s “in the national interest”, especially when our basic right to privacy is being treated so dismissively.

Thanks to Poitras, Snowden’s whistleblowing carries greater weight by being captured at the point at which he had decided to come out of the shadows.  He’s a quietly spoken but still impassioned man who comes across as committed, focused, and fully aware of the potential downfalls of his actions.  As it becomes clear just how long he’s been wrestling with the idea of exposing the NSA and its practices, the enormity of his decision is made all the more impressive.  And when his ACLU lawyer, Ben Wizner, reveals that Snowden – if he returns to the US – would be charged under the Espionage Act, which recognises no mitigating circumstances or defence for any actions taken, it becomes even clearer just how much Snowden may have to give up in the future if, as it seems, that future is in another country.  Whatever your thoughts on whether he was right to do what he did or not, his personal integrity is something that can’t be doubted.

With such a huge gift dropped in her lap, Poitras has assembled a riveting, quietly authoritative documentary movie that explains very complex ideas in a simple, convincing manner and which never condescends or dumbs down the issues.  It’s an impressive piece that provokes astonishment, anger, sadness, disgust and horror in equal measure and which should be watched by anyone with an interest in the protection of civil liberties (in whichever country they live in).  With Snowden making it clear just how much these liberties have already been eroded, and with social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter being targeted as well (this review could, in theory, lead to thedullwoodexperiment being added to some kind of watch list), CITIZENFOUR is a timely reminder that those in charge rarely have our best interests in mind when they go about defending us from others.

Rating: 9/10 – Snowden’s sincerity and self-deprecating position is the movie’s trump card, revealing a man with infinitely more integrity than those he worked for; one of the best documentaries of this or any year, CITIZENFOUR is extremely potent and a great example of political reportage.

Rosewater (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Rosewater

D: Jon Stewart / 103m

Cast: Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Haluk Bilginer, Golshifteh Farahani, Claire Foy, Dimitri Leonidas, Nasser Faris, Jason Jones

An Iranian-born journalist, Maziar Bahari (Bernal), travels to Tehran in June 2009 to cover the Presidential election for Newsweek.  In the run up he speaks to supporters of both President Ahmadinejad and his main rival Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and while his own opinions favour Mousavi, he remains outwardly neutral in his reporting, even when on the day of the election he finds himself barred from an open polling station at the same time that news is being broadcast that Ahmadinejad has won.

In the days that follow, Bahari films on the streets as the Iranian people protest against what they feel have been rigged elections.  During one such protest, Bahari films a crowd outside a military barracks that come under fire from the militia in the building.  He arranges for the footage to be seen outside Iran.  On June 21, while staying with his mother, Moloojoon (Aghdashloo), Bahari is arrested and taken to Evin prison where he is charged with being a spy.

Kept in solitary confinement, Bahari is regularly taken to a room where he is made to sit facing a wall but with a blindfold on.  Here his interrogator (Bodnia) keeps asking him who he is spying for, and is it with the aim of trying to undermine and/or overthrow the Iranian government.  Bahari rejects the idea, and does his best to convince his interrogator that he is just a journalist but the interrogator, in turn, rejects his assertions.  Days pass in this way as various forms of psychological and physical torture are used to break Bahari and get him to confess.  Eventually, after several weeks he makes a televised confession that he is a spy.

Despite being what the Iranian authorities have wanted all along, the confession serves only to highlight Bahari’s plight on an international level, and helps his pregnant wife, Paola (Foy), with her campaign to get him released.  Back in the prison, the interrogations continue but now Bahari begins to regain some level footing by making up stories about his travels, stories that his interrogator believes wholeheartedly.  And then, on October 20, after a hundred and eighteen days, Bahari is offered a chance at freedom: agree to be a spy for the Iranian government and he will be released.

Rosewater - scene

Based on the memoir, Then They Came for Me, that Bahari co-wrote with Aimee Molloy, Rosewater is a compelling, occasionally provocative drama that benefits from solid performances, a clever script courtesy of first-time writer/director Stewart, and a skilful re-creation of the events that led up to Bahari’s confinement.  The movie begins with Bahari’s arrest, a tense scene that carries an uncomfortable hint of menace towards his mother.  From there we flash back to Bahari preparing to leave London for Tehran; the audience gets to see how confidently Stewart is able to set up the story, explaining concisely the basic political situation in Iran, and the importance for the people of the election.

The concise nature of the opening scenes allows the audience to spend more time with Bahari in Evin prison, and it’s here that the movie explores the surprising nature of captivity and its effect on the individual.  Bahari is never conventionally tortured.  There are no beatings, no physical restraints put in place (other than the blindfold), and only one attempt at violence that is conducted more out of frustration on the interrogator’s part than from any premeditated action.  But it has a profound psychological effect on Bahari, and Stewart – aided greatly by Bernal – shows how he did his best to survive by creating interior dialogues with his deceased father and sister.  These scenes are among the most effective in the movie as, for the most part, despite it seeming that Bahari is able to come up with a constructive way of dealing with his captors, by and large he’s unable to do so.  These dialogues allow him to feel and be strong in his own mind, but not in the interrogation room.  It’s a subtle acknowledgment – that often, our strength is something we can only convince ourselves of – but one that Stewart pulls off with deliberately muted style.

With much of the prison scenes allowing little of the outside world to creep in, Bahari’s loneliness and isolation is powerfully presented, though as time goes on and he becomes almost inured to the passage of time, Stewart gradually opens up the movie to show us what’s been going on in the meantime.  Again, it’s a clever move, and adds to the sense that time is passing slowly (which, for Bahari, it must have done).  It’s not until a guard refers to him as “Mr Hillary Clinton” that we – and he – begin to realise that he’s not been quite as alone as it’s seemed.  From there the movie begins to gain pace as the prospect of Bahari’s release becomes more likely, and Stewart allows the tension to unwind.  It’s a slightly counter-intuitive approach but it works in the movie’s favour.

Rosewater - scene2

With Stewart so firmly in control of the material it’s good to see he’s also firmly in control of the performances.  Bernal is an actor who continually impresses, and here he inhabits Bahari with ease, displaying his nervousness and fear and desperation with conviction (though perhaps his best moment is when he dances around his cell to a song only he can hear).  It’s a measured, contemplative performance, one that brings a greater depth to Bahari as a man than audiences might expect.  As his nemesis, and user of the titular liquid, Bodnia is also on fine form, a more traditional style of interrogator who would usually favour a more physical approach, but who finds himself increasingly out of his comfort zone.  When Bahari talks about his “obsession” with sexual massages, his willingness to believe these stories is both comic and pathetic.  The two actors spar around each other with skill, and both are equally mesmerising in their scenes together.

The rest of the cast haven’t quite as much to do in comparison, though Leonidas stands out as Bahari’s “driver”, Davood, and Faris plays the interrogator’s boss with patronising detachment.  Aghdashloo and Bilginer are persuasive as always as Maziar’s parents, though as his sister, Farahani has too little screen time to make any real impression.  This being a Jon Stewart movie there’s also plenty of humour to be had in amongst all the drama, and one scene will have audiences laughing out loud thanks to Bernal and Bodnia’s skill as actors.  The photography is sharply detailed and the movie is brightly lit throughout, at odds with the more gloomy aspects of events.  There’s also an effective score courtesy of Howard Shore that adds weight to the emotional content, but doesn’t overwhelm it.  A couple of gripes aside – Bahari’s hair and beard remain the same throughout the entire hundred and eighteen days he’s imprisoned, the interrogator seems a little too out of his depth to be kept on board the whole time – this is riveting, engrossing stuff, and a triumph for all concerned.

Rating: 9/10 – Rosewater takes a tale of imprisonment and loss of personal freedom but somehow makes it completely accessible and not in the least claustrophobic, while still reinforcing the seriousness of the situation; a great debut for Stewart and one that  succeeds with apparent ease.

Dracula Untold (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Dracula Untold

D: Gary Shore / 92m

Cast: Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper, Sarah Gadon, Art Parkinson, Charles Dance, Diarmaid Murtagh, Paul Kaye

Set in the Middle Ages in Eastern Europe, fealty to the Sultan of Turkey is observed by the giving of a thousand boys to be trained in his army.  Such is the early fate of Vlad Tepes (Evans), who grows up to be a fierce warrior and friend of the subsequent Turkish ruler, Mehmet (Cooper).  Turning his back on war, Vlad returns home to rule his people.  He marries Mirena (Gadon) and has a son, Ingeras (Parkinson).  After years of peace, Vlad is alerted to the presence of Turkish scouts in his homeland.  He tracks them to Broken Tooth Mountain, where in a cave that reveals itself as a slaughterhouse, Vlad comes face to face with a monster (Dance).  He escapes, but not before two of his men have been claimed by the creature.  Returning home, Father Lucien (Kaye) advises Vlad of the creature’s origins, and its vampiric nature.  They decide to keep their knowledge a secret between them.

A Turkish envoy, come to collect his master’s tribute, tells Vlad the Sultan wants a thousand boys for his army.  Vlad wavers over doing his duty to the Sultan and doing what’s best for his people.  When the Sultan’s envoy adds that Mehmet wants a thousand and one boys, and the extra boy should be Ingeras, Vlad is even further torn.  But at the point of giving his son to the envoy, Vlad makes a fateful decision: no boys will go to the Sultan.  War is inevitable, but Vlad seeks a way to avoid his people being decimated by the Turkish hordes.  He returns to Broken Tooth Mountain where he confronts the vampire and asks to share in his power.  The creature agrees but stipulates that if Vlad is to drink any human blood in the next three days then he will be cursed as a vampire forever, and unable to be fully human again.

When the Turks march on Castle Dracula, Vlad goes out to meet them alone… and he decimates their forces.  With a greater army on the way, headed by Mehmet himself, Vlad orders his people to move to a monastery high up in the mountains, somewhere it will be difficult for the Turks to attack directly.  A surprise attack leaves Mirena and Ingeras in peril, but Vlad saves them using his newfound powers.  The next day, at the monastery, suspicions over Vlad’s new powers leads to him being attacked by his own people.  He survives to rebuke them, telling them that what he has done is because of them, and that they should be concentrating on Mehmet’s approaching army.

Arriving just before dawn, the Turkish forces are met by Vlad but they prove to be a decoy for a smaller force that gains entry to the monastery and targets Mirena and Ingeras.  With their fates intertwined with his, Vlad is forced to make a decision that will affect all their lives, and bring him face to face with his boyhood friend.

Dracula Untold - scene

Dracula Untold is yet another reboot of an established and well-defined character that seeks to make them look less like a monster and more like someone who has to be bad in order to do good (this year’s Maleficent is another example).  It’s a strange phenomenon in the movies these days, almost as if moviemakers feel they have to apologise for these characters’ behaviour.  It also ends up rendering them relatively anaemic (excuse the pun) in comparison to their original incarnation.  And so it proves with this reimagining of the Dracula story.

While the initial idea is sound – show how Vlad Tepes, Transylvanian prince and hero to his people became Dracula, bloodthirsty monster feared by all – the movie fumbles its way through its attempts to create an origin story partly based on historical fact and partly on romantic fiction.  Vlad is shown as a peaceful man reigning in a vicious, cruel capacity for violence but even though we see the the results of his warlike nature – the infamous impalings on the battlefield – it’s hard to associate the two differing temperaments.  As played by a suitably brooding Evans, Vlad is a bit of a wimp in the opening scenes, browbeaten by the Turkish envoy and then dismissed by Mehmet in a scene where Vlad pleads for clemency in relation to the thousand boys.  Vlad doesn’t appear the proud leader of men he’s meant to be, but more an easily cowed man with no stomach for a fight.  It’s only when he saves his son and kills some of Mehmet’s men that he shows some mettle.

It’s here that Dracula Untold finally becomes a vampire movie, reintroducing Dance’s withered creature, and setting up a future storyline if the movie is as successful at the box office as Universal hope it will be (they have a modern Monsters Cinematic Universe in mind).  The bargain is made, allowing the inevitable tragedy of such a bargain to begin playing out.  Vlad tries to deny his thirst for blood while Mirena marvels at the disappearance of his battle scars.  And in a scene of limited ferocity and actual bloodshed, Vlad takes on a thousand Turks and kills them all.  But it’s all done at a remove, with the intensity of the situation dialled down a notch or two, and Vlad’s predicament reduced to the level of suffering occasional stomach cramps.  From here, the movie picks up the pace but it’s at the expense of time-related logic and dramatic credibility.

With Vlad needing to defeat Mehmet and his army within three days, the Turks’ ability to travel huge distances in such a short space of time goes unquestioned, while Vlad creates a vampire horde of his own to take them on (would a ruler who truly cares for his people do such a thing even if they were on the verge of dying?).  And the script tries for an ironic twist – Vlad’s fate is sealed by the one person he loves most – that feels hackneyed and short on originality.

Muddled though the movie is for the most part, it’s stronger in its performances.  Evans brings a brutish physicality to the role that suits the warrior Vlad, and he dominates scenes just by being present.  He’s a more thoughtful actor than you might expect from his resumé, and he does his best to offset some of the more florid dialogue in the script, as well as making Vlad a more rounded character.  Gadon also gives a good performance, matching Evans for intensity in their scenes together and making Mirena slightly more than the wife who waits anxiously at home while her man goes off to battle.  Dance radiates a cold disdain as the trapped “master vampire” though his voice retains too much of its recognisable charm to make that disdain truly chilling.  Parkinson proves an adequate match for the demands of a role that could so easily have been more stereotypically presented, while Kaye as Father Lucien has a small but pivotal role that he acquits himself well in (even if some audience members will be saying to themselves, “but that’s Dennis Pennis”).  The only disappointment is Cooper, once again confirming his limited range as an actor, and making Mehmet look and sound like an arrogant jerk.

Dracula Untold - scene2

In the director’s chair, Shore (making his feature debut) uses his experience working in   high-end commercials to provide some impressive visuals – one shot shows Vlad taking on the Turks as reflected in the blade of a sword – and shows a confidence that bodes well for the future if it’s combined with a better script.  He’s clearly comfortable directing actors as well, and the performances are as much to his credit as to theirs.  The photography by John Schwartzman is predictably gloomy, though it avoids the steely gray-blue aesthetic of the Underworld series, and there’s a dramatic if occasionally intrusive score courtesy of Ramin Djawadi that is used to good effect throughout.

Ultimately, Dracula Untold is a bit of a mixed bag, its historical pretensions never fully reconciled with its need to reinvent its title character.  The script – by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless – remains jumbled throughout and it’s this lack of focus that hampers things the most.  As an entreé into the revamped (excuse the pun) world of Universal’s collection of classic monsters it’s maybe not quite the start the company were looking for, but it’s also not as bad as it could have been.

Rating: 5/10 – despite some occasionally severe deficiencies in the script, Dracula Untold is a solid, unpretentious reintroduction to the world’s most (in)famous vampire; a good mix of the epic and the intimate also helps but the characters remain at too much of a remove to make us truly care what happens to them.

Son of 50 Movies to Look Forward to in 2015

Tags

, ,

The original idea seemed simple enough: pick out fifty movies due in 2015, provide a brief overview of each one, and settle back in the knowledge that the most intriguing, most interesting, and most looked-forward-to movies were included.  But as with the best of best laid plans, more and more movies keep popping up that deserve to have been included in the original posts – 50 Movies to Look Forward to in 2015 – Part 1 and 50 Movies to Look Forward to in 2015 – Part 2.  So here are ten more movies coming in 2015 that, hopefully, will tempt audiences into their local multiplex.

Minions - poster

1) Tomorrowland – A sci-fi fantasy starring George Clooney and Under the Dome alumni Britt Robertson about a place that exists somewhere in Robertson’s consciousness (or maybe space and time – or both), this is the movie that Brad Bird turned down Star Wars Episode VII for.  Now if that’s not intriguing…

2) The Revenant – Set in the untamed American West in 1822, this revenge thriller sees Leonardo DiCaprio’s left for dead frontiersman out to get the two men who abandoned him.  Co-starring Tom Hardy, Will Poulter and Domhnall Gleason, this adaptation of a true story by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros (2000), this year’s Birdman) looks set to attract awards by the bucket load.

3) San Andreas – Dwayne Johnson is the rescue chopper pilot who finds himself making a perilous journey to rescue his daughter after a massive earthquake devastates California.  With Ioan Gruffudd and Kylie Minogue along for the ride, this could be either 2015’s premier disaster movie, or just a plain, flat-out disaster.  Here’s hoping it’s the former.

San Andreas - scene

4) Macbeth – Adapted by Todd Louiso – remember him from High Fidelity (2000)? – and starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, this promises to be a gritty, heavily psychological interpretation of the Bard’s most accessible play.  With a supporting cast that includes David Thewlis and Paddy Considine, the only potential drawback is relative newcomer Justin Kurzel in the director’s chair.  But as the Bard quite rightly points out, “The play’s the thing…”

5) Untitled Cameron Crowe Project – With only We Bought a Zoo (2011) having come along from Crowe since 2005, this look at a military contractor involved in a love triangle features a dream cast that includes femme du jour Emma Stone, Bradley Cooper and Bill Murray, and will no doubt feature yet another of Crowe’s quirky, idiosyncratic screenplays.

6) The Finest Hours – This dramatisation of a true story set in 1952 after two oil tankers were destroyed in a blizzard off Cape Cod, and the Coast Guard rescue operation that followed, looks set to be a tense nail biter of a movie.  Craig Gillespie (Million Dollar Arm) directs a cast that includes Chris Pine and Eric Bana, so expect plenty of testosterone amongst the waves.

7) Spotlight – A powerful retelling of the Boston Globe’s exposé of the cover up of child molestation in a local Catholic archdiocese in 2002-3, Spotlight has an impressive cast (2015 seems set to be the year of great ensemble casts) that features Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci.  Grim subject matter aside, this should still be gripping stuff.

Spotlight - scene

8) By the Sea – Set in the 70’s, this romantic drama sees married couple Vanessa and Roland struggling to keep their marriage going while staying in a small French seaside town.  Uniting Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt for the first time since Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005), and directed by Jolie, this could be more rewarding than it seems at first glance (plus Pitt has been making some great choices in recent years).

9) La La Land – It’s a romantic musical comedy drama and stars rising star Miles Teller as a jazz pianist who falls in love with Emma Watson’s aspiring actress.  With writer/direcotor Damien Chazelle building on the promise shown by Whiplash (2014), this has all the hallmarks of an engrossing, emotionally charged drama.

10) Rock the Kasbah – Barry Levinson continues to chop and change genres with this comedy surrounding a music producer (played by Bruce Willis) who aims for one last shot at the big time with a golden-voiced young girl from Afghanistan.  With support from the likes of Kate Hudson and Bill Murray, this could be a mordant satire or a crazy parody of shows like The X Factor; either way it should be a treat.

That’s all for now!

Poster of the Week – The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Tags

, , , ,

Rocky Horror Picture Show, The

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

There were many posters created to promote Richard O’Brien’s affectionate tribute to 30’s horror and 50’s sci-fi, but this is one of the best.  For its time, the movie was a slightly subversive treat, its air of permissive sexuality (in any form) allied to some great song and dance numbers.  Now, almost forty years on, it’s less shocking, but it’s become perhaps the cult movie around the world.

Looking at the poster now it doesn’t have the same effect it would have done back in 1975.  The sight of Tim Curry in make up,  shiny basque, stockings and high heels no longer has that risqué quality that intrigued audiences who hadn’t seen the stage show, but it’s still an arresting image, a bold statement of intent that hasn’t lost its impact entirely.  His haughty, scornful look is another great touch, challenging the potential viewer as if to say, “Do you have what it takes to watch this movie?”

And then there are the lips – courtesy of Patricia Quinn, Magenta in the movie – a now iconic image that is recognised everywhere.  On their own they’re like a fetish object, full and curvy and inviting and infused with an indefinable promise of things to cum.  With Tim Curry as Frank-N-Furter draped across them, they become even more erotically charged, the combination of willing lips and waiting body making the movie’s invitation to “Don’t dream it, be it” all the more alluring.  It’s a powerful merger of two already compelling images, and is extremely effective.

Lastly, there’s the title itself, a dripping, blood-red example of the kind of title graphic used in the 40’s, a fond recreation of a style that represented shock and horror and terror “unlike anything seen before”.  And with a black background that allows everything else to stand out in sharp relief, this is a poster that draws the eye and makes it hard to look away.

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

Mini-Review: Jersey Shore Massacre (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

JERSEY SHORE MASSACRE, poster art, from left: Chris Lazzaro, Giovanni Roselli, Danielle Dallacco,

D: Paul Tarnopol / 88m

Cast: Danielle Dallacco, Angelica Boccella, Giovanni Roselli, Chris Lazzaro, Nicole Rutigliano, Ashley Mitchell, Christina Scaglione, Brenton Duplessie, Brett Azar, John Michael Hastie, Leonarda Bosch, Ron Jeremy

A group of friends – Teresa (Dallacco), Dina (Boccella), Joanne (Rutigliano), Valerie (Mitchell), and Gigi (Scaglione) – decide to head for the beach for the weekend but a double booking on the place where they’re meant to stay means they end up staying at Teresa’s Uncle Vito’s place on the edge of the Pine Barrens.  They head for the beach anyway, and meet a group of guys – Tony (Roselli), Freddy (Lazzaro), Vinnie (Duplessie), Gino (Azar), and Joey (Hastie) – with similar ambitions for the weekend: to party hard and get laid.  They all head back to Uncle Vito’s where they start to get to know each other better, but there’s a killer on the loose, and he’s hell bent on murdering them all.

Intended as a spoof horror – the spoof element being the characters who bear a strong resemblance to the characters in the TV show, Jersey ShoreJersey Shore Massacre is  an unsophisticated, deliberately awful parody of that particular show, as well as a fond tribute to various horror movies of the last twenty years (it’s nice to see both Friday the 13th and The Shining being alluded to… as well as many other horror classics).  It makes fun of the show’s conventions, and boasts some unexpectedly funny one-liners as well as a further in-movie spoof entitled Fat Camp Massacre.

Jersey Shore Massacre - scene

But poking fun at a bunch of narcissists will only get you so far, and so it goes here, with a cast who look and sound the part – with the exception of Dallacco who looks like she’s wandered in from another show entirely (one with an IQ requirement that’s in double figures) – but who are as annoying as their small screen counterparts.  Having them killed off in ever more inventive ways goes some way to making the movie more palatable but it’s still riddled with casual sexism and even more casual attempts at acting.

Co-writer/director Tarnopol struggles with the set up and appears undecided as to whether his version of the Jersey Devil should be into torture porn or straight forward slaying, and there’s a shower murder that would have had Hitchcock shaking his head in dismay.  All in all it’s as amateurish as you’d expect, and further proof that just because someone can make a movie, it doesn’t mean they should.

Rating: 3/10 – as bad as it sounds, and good intentions aside, the kind of spoof that works only if the original source isn’t already an example of self-parody; when the cast whine louder than the sander used on one victim, then it’s clear – if the title Jersey Shore Massacre hadn’t convinced anyone already – that this is low budget stuff and less than impressive.

Good People (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

Good People

D: Henrik Ruben Genz / 90m

Cast: James Franco, Kate Hudson, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Spruell, Omar Sy, Anna Friel, Diarmaid Murtaugh, Michael Jibson, Oliver Dimsdale, Francis Magee

Tom Wright (Franco) and his wife Anna (Hudson) have moved from America to London to make a fresh start, and to renovate the house left to Tom by his grandmother.  Where they’re living, they rent the basement to a man named Ben Tuttle (Magee).  When they find Tuttle dead from an apparent overdose, the police investigation brings them into contact with DI Halden (Wilkinson).  Although Tuttle had a criminal background, Halden is after bigger fish: Jack Witkowski (Spruell), a vicious gangster whom Tuttle had recently helped steal a consignment of liquid heroin from French drug dealer, Khan (Sy).  Later on, while clearing the basement, Tom finds a hidden bag of money with over £300,000 in it.  With bills mounting and his grandmother’s house costing more to put right than he’d expected, Tom suggests they keep the money hidden and when the time is right, begin to use it to settle their debts and get ahead.

Anna reluctantly agrees to Tom’s plan, but both use the money in small ways, and it comes to Halden’s attention.  Tuttle’s whereabouts, meanwhile, have come to the attention of Witkowski, who has been looking for him since the theft of the liquid heroin.  Tuttle had double-crossed him and taken both the money and the heroin, as well as contributing to the death of Witkowski’s younger brother.  Witkowski visits the basement flat and finds the heroin but not the money.

Tom is then approached by Khan who is looking for revenge on Witkowksi and his drugs and money back.  He impresses on Tom the importance of being a team player, leaving no doubt that he and Anna will suffer if they don’t help him.  Things get worse when Witkowski returns to their home, attacks Tom and demands the money.  Anna arrives home and bargains for their lives, stalling long enough until, by good fortune, Halden appears and Witkowski leaves.  The Wrights come clean about the money, though Halden tells them they’re not out of the woods yet.  He suggests setting a trap for Witkowski and they organise a rendezvous in a park to drop off the money.  The trap goes wrong and Halden is shot, leaving Tom and Anna to negotiate another meeting… but this time at Tom’s grandmother’s house.

Good People - scene

By most standards, Good People is – and let’s make this perfectly clear from the outset – a shockingly bad movie.  It labours under the misapprehension that it’s a thriller and it’s almost entirely a case of what you see is what you get – there’s little or no depth here, and even less that’s credible or convincing.  Based on the novel by Marcus Sakey, the movie stumbles and staggers its way from disjointed scene to disjointed scene with barely a moment to pause and consider where it’s going or how it’s going to get there.  There are problems literally everywhere, from the police’s inability to trace any of Tuttle’s relatives (while Witkowski finds a cousin at the drop of a hat), to Halden’s vigilante-style approach to police work, to Tom’s attempts at action man heroics, to a number of undeveloped subplots, and the extended showdown at the end that seems to be de rigueur these days (and stretches the boundaries of human physical endurance).

Matters aren’t helped by muted performances from the two leads – unsurprising in Hudson’s case as she’s off screen more than she’s on – and Wilkinson overdoing the weary policeman routine to the point where it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he fell asleep during a scene and started snoring.  And he delivers his lines with a kind of bored, indifferent approach that begs the question as to why he took on the role in the first place (surely he’s still not making mortgage payments?).  Spruell exudes an icy menace (one of the few positives the movie manages to provide), while Sy comes across as less a disgruntled gangster and more like a petulant catalogue model made to wear a jacket with an ugly stain on it.  And Friel, as Anna’s friend Sarah, has a priceless moment where, after being held hostage with her baby by Witkowski, escapes the house at the end and promptly runs off without a backward glance.

There really isn’t much to recommend about Good People.  Kelly Masterson’s screenplay gives new meaning to the phrase “all over the place”, and is a major step down from his adaptation of Snowpiercer (2013), while in the director’s chair, newbie Genz displays a liking for odd camera angles that add little to the proceedings other than to leave the audience trying to work out what they’re looking at.  The cinematography by Jørgen Johansson makes London look interminably grim and depressing, and there’s an unfortunate emphasis on subdued lighting that adds to the movie’s too-sombre look.  There are also issues with the continuity within individual scenes that haven’t been addressed in the editing suite.

Rating: 3/10 – unappealing, contrived and as wearying to watch as Tom Wilkinson’s equally weary performance, Good People is dispiriting fare that never really knows what to do with its basic plot; one for Franco or Hudson completists only, or fans of pedestrian thrillers that leave out the thrills.

Obvious Child (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Obvious Child

D: Gillian Robespierre / 84m

Cast: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann, Gabe Liedman, Richard Kind, Polly Draper, David Cross, Paul Briganti

Donna (Slate) is an aspiring comedienne who uses her own life as the basis for her stand up routines.  On stage she’s fearless and bold, inviting audiences to share in her bewilderment at the stains she finds in her underwear, and the equally bewildering state of her sex life with boyfriend Ryan (Briganti).  When he splits up with her after a gig, Donna doesn’t know what to do.  Matters don’t improve when her boss at the bookstore where she works – the wonderfully named Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books – tells her it’s going to be closing down.  She looks to her parents (Kind, Draper) for advice but they both say the same thing: treat the current changes in her life as a challenge.

Donna uses the break up with Ryan as part of a routine but it goes badly.  Afterwards she meets Max (Lacy) and they hit it off and end up having a one-night stand.  Weeks later, while out on a shopping trip with best friend Nellie (Hoffmann), Donna realises she’s pregnant.  Not ready to have a child yet, she decides to have an abortion.  It’s at this point that Max reappears in her life, but while they begin to build a relationship together, Donna doesn’t tell him about the pregnancy.  It becomes even more difficult to tell him when he reveals he can’t wait to be a grandfather after they see an elderly couple in a restaurant.

When Donna arranges with Max for him to come to her next show, she leaves with old friend Sam (Cross) before he can get there.  They have an awkward moment at the kerbside that derails their relationship, leaving Donna feeling guilty and Max feeling confused.  She tells her mother who confides that she was in the same position when she was young.  From this, Donna decides to tell Max but he doesn’t find out until he goes to another of her shows and hears her discussing the pregnancy (and her plans to abort it) as part of the routine.  The next day, and just as she’s leaving for the clinic, Max turns up with flowers…

Obvious Child - scene

Expanded from a short made in 2009, Obvious Child is an indie movie that mixes traditional romantic comedy fare with more considered dramatic elements and fuses them together to make a curious mix that is both beguiling and intriguing to watch.  It all hinges on whether or not you buy into the character of Donna as a confident artist on stage, but an insecure, diffident person off stage.  Thanks to Slate and writer/director Robespierre, Donna is someone we can all relate to, her lack of self-confidence away from the mic no different from the way in which any project or hobby or interest can elevate our faith in ourselves, if only for a short while, and allow us to put aside the more humdrum or mundane aspects of our daily lives.  Donna’s also in her early twenties, still unsure about a lot of things, and like most of us at that age, still trying to find a place in the world around us.  Her stand up routines are the way in which she works things out and puts some perspective on her life.

With Donna so cleverly and concisely drawn as a character, it leaves plenty of room for Slate to develop the role into something with a much greater depth than you’d normally expect from a comedy with such dramatic overtones.  Donna is a mass of insecurities, flaws, uncertainties and self-doubts, but once she becomes pregnant she undergoes a sea change.  It’s gradual but it’s there, a growing capacity for clear decision making, as the demands of Donna’s life become easier to deal with and her perception of herself becomes less debilitating.  In short, deciding to have an abortion proves the making of her.

Abortion as a means to self-empowerment may not be the angle the filmmakers were aiming for, but it’s there nevertheless, and whether by design or not, it makes Donna all the more credible as a character.  Cliché or not, adversity often brings out the best in people, and here, despite a couple of wobbles early on, Donna’s decision is one that proves to be a turning point, allowing her to grow and improve as a person.  Slate is flawless in the role; she’s funny, poignant, touching, and she doesn’t strike a false note in the entire movie (and it’s helpful that’s she’s reprising her role from the short).  It’s a star turn, able and arresting.

The rest of the cast provide more than capable support, with Lacy making Max the kind of amiable, dependable boyfriend material that all mothers would like to see their daughters hook up with, and Hoffmann providing an often acerbic turn as Donna’s best friend.  Robespierre provides everyone with great dialogue – the exchange between Donna and her father at the dining table; Nellie’s admonishment, “You’re dizzy because you played Russian roulette with your vagina” – and directs loosely but with a judicious use of close ups.  Donna’s stand up routines are darkly hilarious, and it’s great to see a female comic speaking as candidly as she does about such otherwise “hush hush” topics.

The subject of abortion may not be to everyone’s taste, and pro-Lifers may feel angered by the approach the movie takes, but this is one woman’s considered, positive reaction to an event she’s unprepared for, and on that level it works tremendously well.  Robespierre and Slate et al. should be congratulated for making a movie that doesn’t shy away from its contentious topic and doesn’t seek to complicate matters by referring to all the other agendas out there that relate to the issue.

Rating: 8/10 – an indie movie that is honest, emotive and rewarding, Obvious Child crams a lot into its short running time, and has much to recommend it; a breath of fresh air and seriously funny.

Spider Baby or, the Maddest Story Ever Told (1967)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Spider Baby

D: Jack Hill / 84m

Cast: Lon Chaney Jr, Carol Ohmart, Quinn Redeker, Beverly Washburn, Jill Banner, Sid Haig, Mary Mitchel, Karl Schanzer, Mantan Moreland

A messenger (Moreland) approaches a lonely old house located way out of town on an unmarked dirt road.  On the porch he looks in an open window, hoping to find someone at home. It’s the last thing he does.  For this is the Merrye House, home to a family blighted by inbreeding and a resulting genetic disorder that causes mental regression from around the age of ten.  Looking after the last descendants of this particular branch of the Merrye family is Bruno (Chaney Jr), the family chauffeur who promised to look after the children when their father died years before.  He’s kept them safe and away from prying eyes, knowing that their behaviour would see them taken and locked away.

There are two daughters: Elizabeth (Washburn) and Virginia (Banner), and a son, Ralph (Haig).  Elizabeth thinks it’s natural to hate everyone, and that everyone else is prone to hate too.  Virginia is fixated on spiders, and keeps two tarantulas in a writing desk; she has a special spider game she likes to play as well.  Ralph is a grinning halfwit, unable to communicate except by grunts and gestures.  All three have developed murderous tendencies, though Bruno has done his best to instil some degree of socially accepted behaviour in all of them.  They trust him to look after them, and he does so willingly.

The messenger’s letter informs of an impending visit by distant relatives Emily (Ohmart) and Peter (Redeker), their lawyer and his secretary.  Their aim is to dispossess the children of their home and profit from the sale of the house.  When they arrive, Bruno and the children attempt to be hospitable but the lawyer, Schlocker (Schanzer) is suspicious of them and their avoidance when discussing an aunt and uncle that should be living with them.  Emily reacts coldly, while Peter is equitable and treats them with respect.  Schlocker’s secretary, Ann (MItchel) gravitates towards Peter but is also uneasy, especially at the prospect of spending the night.  When the issue of two few rooms means Ann having to stay at a hotel in town, Peter offers to take her.

After they leave, Schlocker waits until everyone has gone to bed before he starts to snoop around.  He’s discovered by Elizabeth and Virginia, but not before he’s had a nasty encounter with their uncle.  They murder him, and when Bruno finds out what they’ve done, he realises it’s really the end of everything.  With a plan in mind to keep the children safe forever, he leaves the house.  Meanwhile, Ralph is spying on Emily while she undresses for bed.  When she sees him at her window she runs from the house.  All three children pursue her, but it’s Ralph who catches her. and with unfortunate repercussions.

With all the hotels in town full, Peter and Ann return to the house.  Peter agrees to play the spider game with Virginia and finds himself tied to a chair.  At the same time, Ann is grabbed by Ralph after she sees the children’s father, and helped by the two girls, is taken to the cellar where they try to kill her.  Help comes in an unexpected form, but with things having gone too far, Bruno’s return heralds a more permanent solution.

Spider Baby - scene

Filmed in 1964 but unreleased until ’67 because the producers went bankrupt, Spider Baby or, the Maddest Story Ever Told is a movie unburdened by notions of good taste or civility.  Its tale of a family of “retarded” (the movie’s term for it) degenerates at the mercy of an inherited disorder, the movie doesn’t lack for chances to be exploitative or horrific or unnerving.  There’s humour as well, a penchant for weirdness for weirdness’ sake, and above average performances, elements that fuse together to provide a rewarding experience, despite its creaky sub-haunted house scenario.

The key to everything is writer/director Hill, making his first movie and showing an undisputed flair for the macabre (not bad for someone who started their career at Disney).  The movie has an eerie quality that eludes most horror movies from the Sixties, and it has a pace and style that helps avoid the usual pitfalls, adding greatly to the more outlandish moments such as Ann being expected to stay in the room where the father’s remains are still in the bed.  Even when Schlocker begins his prowl round the house, a sequence which, for the period, is often the cue for an extended and usually dull interlude, here it’s given a welcome boost by the Merrye House not being a rambling mansion, and by the unexpected intervention of Uncle Ned.

With certain expectations undermined, Hill is free to tell his story as imaginatively as he wants, and he’s aided by a cast who all seem as committed as he is to making the best movie they can from the material.  Chaney Jr gives what is possibly one of the best performances of his later career – if not the best – his sad, weary face a joy to behold whenever he’s on screen, and more expressive than a dozen of his other movies all put together.  Chaney wasn’t in the best of health at this stage of his career, and the filming conditions weren’t the best – no air conditioning – so he does look inappropriately sweaty throughout, but his quiet, almost retiring approach to the character of Bruno is effective and oddly profound.

Spider Baby - scene2

As the children, Hill’s choice of actors also pays off.  Washburn and Banner play the sisters like errant schoolgirls, remonstrating with each other over their behaviour and curiously displaying little or no affection.  Their quirky, strange, off-kilter view of people and the outside world is by turns amusing, worrying, and terrifying.  Without Bruno’s guidance, you wonder how unfettered their behaviour would have become, and the two actresses display that kind of blithe dissociation with ease, inhabiting their roles with impressive composure.  Haig hasn’t quite as much to do but his jerky physical movements are often unsettling and his slack-jawed facial expressions, while often humorous to watch, belie a disturbing preponderance for lustful abduction.  With his bald head and pop eyed stare, Haig draws the attention throughout.

Redeker narrates the story with a smooth, urbane charm, and maintains a wide-eyed naïveté that contrasts well with the theatrical hysterics of his character’s relatives.  It’s an easy-going performance, skewed towards providing much of the movie’s comedy, his reactions to the more outré events providing a lot of beguiling amusement.  By contrast, Ohmart is the chilly relative who can only see dollar signs and intolerable weirdness.  She spends the latter part of the movie in just her underwear (apparently chosen specifically by Ohmart for use in the movie), and looks great.

Spider Baby looks great too even today, its crisp, atmospherically lit scenes often beautifully executed by DoP Alfred Taylor.  Hill shows a good eye for composition as well, blocking scenes with confidence and an intuitive feel for unnerving camera angles.  As well as encouraging strong performances from his talented cast, Hill also makes a virtue of the movie’s low budget to create a series of interchangeable sets that add tremendously to the claustrophobic feel of the Merrye house.  A mention too for the score by Ronald Stein: suitably creepy in parts, aptly stirring in others, but always complementary to the action.

Rating: 8/10 – with a better presentation and attention to detail than might be expected, Spider Baby or, the Maddest Story Ever Told is a wild ride bolstered by strong performances and a clever script; not weighed down by some of the stylistic excesses of later, similar movies, Hill’s debut sticks out by being effortlessly creative, and delightfully grotesque.

Gone Girl (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Gone Girl

D: David Fincher / 149m

Cast: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, David Clennon, Lisa Banes, Missi Pyle, Emily Ratajkowski, Casey Wilson, Lola Kirke, Boyd Holbrook, Sela Ward, Scoot McNairy

One morning in July, Nick Dunne (Affleck) comes home to find signs of a violent struggle and his wife, Amy (Pike), missing.  He calls the police and when they arrive, Detective Boney (Dickens) and Officer Gilpin (Fugit), soon find further evidence that something bad has happened.  Soon, Amy’s face is everywhere, and while it’s assumed at first that she’s been abducted, Nick’s behaviour doesn’t ring true and he becomes a suspect in what may be his wife’s death.  With evidence building up against him, Nick and his sister Margo (Coon) try to figure out what’s going on, but they’re stumped at every turn.  It’s only when they make a startling discovery in a woodshed on Margo’s property that they begin to realise what’s really happening.

At this point in the movie, as well as in Gillian Flynn’s original novel, there is a major plot twist, and both incarnations of the story begin to move in a new direction, opening out what is a fairly claustrophobic small-town mystery into something that strains credulity and begins to founder under the weight of its attempts to be cleverer than it needs to be.  There are many, many problems with the plot against Nick Dunne, not least Nick’s conveniently inappropriate responses in front of the police and the media, but also the introduction of Amy’s diary.  This offers a disjointed view of Nick and Amy’s marriage that’s meant to put doubts in the minds of the audience as to Nick’s innocence, but which has its effectiveness rendered null and void by the aforementioned plot twist.

It’s not unusual to watch a thriller and find yourself questioning the logic of what’s happening, but with Gone Girl it’s a constant process.  There’s little doubt that Flynn’s tale of marital discord has a degree of cultural relevancy, and her examination of the hidden duplicities and feelings within a marriage is sharper than expected, but ultimately, what we’re talking about here is an above averagely presented potboiler that marries trenchant observations on the media and modern marriage with more traditional thriller elements, and which muddles its way through to an ending which can be seen as either depressingly nihilistic or just desserts for a character – Nick – who has been outclassed from the beginning (though it seems at first glance that it’s all happening because the person doing it all really holds a grudge).

Gone Girl - scene

What happens in the movie’s second half, as Nick attempts to regain control of his life, and defend himself from the police and the media, is confidently arranged and presented by Fincher, but with what the audience knows is happening elsewhere, the movie maintains its measured, effective pacing but at the expense of the tension that’s been built up before.  It’s not the movie’s fault; it is, after all a very faithful adaptation by Flynn of her own novel, and Fincher seems happy to go along with the twists and turns and her reliance on dramatic licence to steer her characters through.  The weaknesses that plague the second half of the novel are present in the movie, and have the same effect: they make everything too unbelievable, and lead to a denouement that will either have audiences who haven’t read the novel shaking their heads in disbelief and asking, “Is that it?”, or audiences who have read the novel shaking their heads in disbelief and asking, “Is that still it?”

So – is Gone Girl then a bad movie?  The answer is very definitely No.  In Fincher’s hands, Gone Girl overcomes it’s cod-psychological thriller origins to become a dark, unsettling movie that picks at the conventional notions of love and marriage and finds murky, troubled waters flowing just below the surface.  As an examination of how two people can fall out of love with each other so easily, and be so ready to hurt each other in the process, the movie scores on all counts.  Nick and Amy, once so right for each other, are now adversaries, both looking to come out on top.  It’s an unfair fight; after all, if Nick was a box-cutter, he’d be the last one you’d use to open up something (he’s just not that sharp).  But Amy is sharp, smart as a whip in fact.  She’s Amazing Amy, the ultimate version of herself that her parents created when she was a little girl, a prodigy who always excels, who always ends up the winner, just because she’s Amazing Amy.  (Amy has always been in competition with her literary alter-ego, but the movie only mentions it in passing, while the novel explores the idea in greater, and more rewarding, depth.  It’s important to take in, though.)

Fincher excels at fleshing out the characters.  Nick is smug and stupid and reckless and self-satisfied and callow and foolish, and he has no idea how idiotically he behaves.  He’s like Bambi in a hunter’s sights, a prize just waiting to be claimed.  Affleck gives perhaps his best performance in years, earning our initial sympathy then dashing it to the ground in one superbly orchestrated scene that pulls the rug out from under the audience with undisguised pleasure.  Nick is twitchy, nervous, anxious, panicky – all the things you’d expect when someone is increasingly viewed as having killed their wife, but Affleck never puts a foot – or an inappropriate grin – wrong, imbuing Nick with an easy-to-warm-to naïveté that hardens as the movie plays out, his nervous energy transformed into a need for redemption in the public’s eye.  As mentioned before, Nick is a frustratingly obtuse character, but Affleck makes it a positive.  Even when Nick is doing or saying something witless, like posing with a woman for a selfie, it’s witless because it’s part of his nature, his way of dealing with people.  He’s like a puppy: he just wants to be loved.

Gone Girl - scene2

Conversely, Amy has always been loved, her parents’ books about her excelling alter-ego having made her treasured by default.  But that affection comes with an expectation that everyone around Amy will feel the same way about her, and if she’s in a relationship then it’s all or nothing, her way or no way.  Pike is a revelation here: as we learn more and more about Amy, she reveals more and more of the fractured person Amy really is.  It’s a role that would test any actress, but Pike – who probably wasn’t most people’s first choice for the part – claims the role as her own and pulls off a devastating performance.  She’s an actress who shows everything with her eyes; watch those and you’ll know everything her character is thinking and feeling, and some things you might not want to know.  She complements Affleck’s performance superbly, and she even manages to make some of Flynn’s more tortured dialogue sound appropriate and convincing.

In support, Dickens is excellent as the detective who never feels entirely satisfied with the way things keep happening, her experience telling her that there’s more going on than meets the eye.  As one of Amy’s old boyfriends, Desi Collings, Harris is awkwardly emotional and manipulative at the same time, the kind of creepy paramour most women would run a mile from.  Coon offers solid support as Nick’s sister but the role is  stereotypically rendered: she believes in him no matter what, even when he does something really stupid.  And Perry – as Nick’s lawyer, Tanner Bolt – has fun with a role that could have done with a bit more bluster, and he provides some much needed levity from the seriousness of the situation.

Marshalling the production into something much greater than its origins, though, is Fincher, a director able to elevate any material he’s given – save Alien³ (1992) – and make it riveting to watch.  In hand with cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, Fincher makes Gone Girl an impressively visual experience, with shots and images that linger in the memory, and never so cleverly as with Nick and Amy’s home, a large, airy property that serves to highlight how far apart from each other they actually are.  Fincher also takes the more outlandish aspects of Flynn’s story and makes them more credible (though even he’s powerless to override the flimsy psychology that underpins the ending), and he makes the audience want to know what happens next, even if it might be obvious.  With two commanding central performances as well, Gone Girl cements Fincher’s reputation even further, and if at some point down the road Flynn decides to revisit Nick and Amy’s marriage, there shouldn’t be any question as to who should direct the movie version.

While it may divide some audiences – especially those who like their endings to be unequivocal (although this is, in its way) – Gone Girl is nonetheless superior movie-making, and should be regarded as such.  Fincher shows a complete understanding of the characters and their motivations, and delivers one of the most unexpectedly energised movies of the year.  It’s a thriller, yes, but at its heart it’s a movie about the expectations of love and the slow decay of a relationship, where passion turns to pain and love turns to hate.  And it’s relentless.

Rating: 8/10 – the script’s deficiencies knock this one down a point, but this is still very impressive stuff indeed; a taut, engrossing thriller that impresses with every scene, Gone Girl is that rare movie that grips the audience despite its faults and becomes a movie that everyone will want to talk about afterwards.

Horns (2013)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Horns

D: Alexandre Aja / 120m

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Max Minghella, Joe Anderson, Juno Temple, Kelli Garner, James Remar, Kathleen Quinlan, David Morse, Heather Graham

Ig Perrish (Radcliffe) has earned the enmity of the small town he lives in.  His longtime girlfriend, Merrin Williams (Temple) has been brutally killed in nearby woods, and everyone thinks Ig killed her.  With the townsfolk threatening him at every turn, and news crews following him wherever he goes, Ig protests his innocence but is continually ignored.  Even his friends and family suspect or believe he did it; only his best friend, Lee (Minghella), a lawyer, believes he’s innocent.

When a candlelit vigil is held at the place where Merrin was murdered, a drunken Ig rages against a God who could allow her to die.  The next morning he awakes to find two tiny horns growing out of his forehead.  Horrified, he goes to his doctor where he becomes aware of a startling side effect that the horns have brought with them: the people he encounters are compelled to tell him their darkest thoughts and desires once they’ve seen the horns.  He also learns that he can persuade them to act on these desires.  Using this ability he begins to visit people who knew Merrin in the hope of finding clues as to her killer’s identity – or even find them in person.  Everyone reveals something about themselves that is otherwise hidden except for Lee who doesn’t see any horns at all.

Ig suffers a setback when he learns a witness has come forward to say that they saw him leave a diner with Merrin on the night she was killed.  Ig knows this isn’t true, but at first he can’t think how to make the witness withdraw their statement.  The arrival of a bed of snakes that he can control solves the issue but brings him no nearer to finding Merrin’s killer.  It’s only when he confronts his brother, Terry (Anderson), that he begins to discover what exactly happened that night, including a fateful meeting at the diner that he had with Merrin, and which he’d forgotten.

As the clues mount up and Ig gets nearer the truth, an unexpected revelation leads to an attempt on his life.  Surviving the attempt, Ig sets a trap for the killer, and in the process, learns the tragic truth about his beloved Merrin.

Horns -scene

There’s a moment in Horns when Ig suggests that a couple of TV news reporters should “beat the shit out of each other” with an exclusive interview as the prize for the winner.  What follows is a free-for-all brawl between news teams that is both funny and ferocious at the same time.  It’s a perfect example of the tone of the movie, a delightfully perverse adaptation of Joe Hill’s novel that offers a mix of very dark humour and fantasy alongside a very traditional whodunnit.  It’s a bold, audacious movie, encompassing romantic drama, horror, broad comedy, and childhood flashbacks to often dizzying effect.  It’s also a great deal of fun.

Under the auspices of Aja, Horns is never less than riveting, its structure so cleverly constructed by screenwriter Keith Bunin that a few minor plot stumbles aside – the presence of the snakes (never properly explained), the killer’s apparent amnesia when confronted a second time by Ig – the movie grabs the attention from the outset, thrusting the viewer into Ig’s predicament with economy and style.  Its greatest trick is not to make Ig instantly likeable, and while it’s no stretch to believe he’s entirely innocent, his behaviour is self-destructive and aggressive, leaving just that sliver of doubt that maybe, just maybe, he might have killed Merrin.  And with a major motive introduced two thirds in, the movie still manages to throws doubts at the viewer with deliberate glee.

Radcliffe – building a quietly diverse and impressive career for himself post-Hogwarts – is the movie’s trump card, giving a well-rounded, nuanced performance that requires a lot from him as an actor.  He’s more than up to the task though, and is simply mesmerising throughout, justifying entirely the decision to cast him.  It’s a rich, deceptively detailed portrayal, much more resonant than we’re used to in what is ultimately a horror fantasy.  There’s a scene towards the end where Ig reads a letter written to him by Merrin.  The pain and anguish Radcliffe evinces, along with Temple’s perfect reading of the letter, makes the scene achingly sad to watch (and also the movie’s standout moment).

The supporting cast offer sterling support, from Garner’s turn as Ig’s would-be girlfriend Glenna, to Morse as Merrin’s heartbroken father.  If there’s a weak link it’s Minghella, an actor whose features lend themselves well to looking perturbed or querulous, but who regularly struggles to persuade audiences when more convincing emotions are required.  Temple continues to impress, her role in flashback as Merrin giving her another chance to shine (along with Radcliffe, she’s carving out a very interesting career for herself), and there’s a pivotal role for the underused Graham that reminds the viewer – however briefly – just how good she is.

The fantasy elements are effective, with a final transformation for Ig that is impressively handled, and the striking British Columbia locations are lensed to subtly remarkable effect by DoP (and David Lynch alumni) Frederick Elmes.  Aja keeps the focus on Ig and Merrin, the true heart of the movie, and holds back on the bloodshed to a level that, while it may annoy some horror fans, is in keeping with the overall tone of the movie (that said, he can’t resist including one splatter moment).  With a denouement that ups the pace and provides a satisfying conclusion to events, Horns succeeds on so many levels that it’s a very jaded viewer who will be disappointed by what the movie has to offer.

Rating: 8/10 – an above average fantasy thriller with dark comedic overtones, Horns is another daring outing from the very talented Aja; with a deep well of emotion for it to draw on, the movie succeeds in marrying a variety of disparate elements into a rewarding and gratifying whole.

Poster of the Week – Journey to Italy (1954)

Tags

, , , , ,

Journey to Italy

Journey to Italy (1954)

One of a multitude of poster designs created for the movie, this particular example is striking for a number of reasons, not least it’s decision to represent its leading lady with a less than flattering illustration.  Bergman was still a big star in ’54, even if she had left her family for Rossellini, the movie’s director.  This was the third film they made together, and its tale of a ruined marriage was reflected in the compositional choices made for this poster.

On the left is that curious representation of Bergman, her gaze drawn by something we can’t see, her pensive expression making it hard to work out what she’s thinking.  Below her we see a young couple embracing – is she remembering this, is it part of her past with her husband, or is it something she sought but never found?  (The answer can be found in the movie.)  And above her, merging with her hair, a gondola that’s broken in two.  An obvious metaphor perhaps, but not so obvious at first glance.

And then there’s that central image, a still taken from the movie itself, with Sanders in full on predatory mode, his gaze fixed on the young woman in such a way that his intentions couldn’t be any clearer.  He’s sizing her up, thinking ahead maybe to when he can be alone with her.  But look closely at the young woman and she’s looking at him right back, aware of the significance of his attention but unafraid, challenging him perhaps, or ready to acquiesce.  Either way, she’s on an equal footing with him.

The movie’s original Italian title, at once a literal statement of its subject matter and a cogent summing up of what happens to Bergman and Sanders as their trip threatens to unravel them as individuals and as a couple, is mostly in vibrant red, highlighting the passion that lurks below the surface of both characters.

With so much information packed into one apparently pedestrian looking poster, it’s a testament to its designer – whoever they were – that it belies its commonplace appearance and is far more subtle and effective than it looks a first.

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Walk Among the Tombstones, A

D: Scott Frank / 114m

Cast: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Boyd Holbrook, Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Adam David Thompson, Mark Consuelos, Sebastian Roché

New York, 1991.  Matt Scudder (Neeson) is a cop with a drink problem.  When armed robbers hold up the bar he’s in, he chases them outside and shoots all three of them, fatally.

Eight years later, Scudder is an unlicensed private detective, still working in New York, and a recovering alcoholic.  When a fellow AA member, Peter (Holbrook) tells him his brother, Kenny (Stevens) wants to offer him a job, Scudder isn’t really interested at first, but he decides to see what the job is about.  Kenny offers him $20,000 to find the men who kidnapped and killed his wife.  Kenny’s reluctance to involve the police tips off Scudder that he’s a drug dealer, and he declines the offer.  When Scudder returns to his apartment later, he finds Kenny waiting for him.  Kenny tells him about the kidnapping, and how he was left to find his wife dismembered in the trunk of a car.  He also leaves a tape recording the kidnappers made of them torturing his wife.  Scudder decides to take the case.

Sensing that Kenny’s wife may not have been the kidnappers first victim, Scudder visits the library to go through the newspaper records.  He strikes up a conversation with a young boy, TJ (Bradley), and together they discover two other murder victims where abduction and subsequent dismemberment have occurred.  Scudder visits the cemetery where the second victim’s body was discovered, and talks to one of the groundskeepers, Jonas (Ólafsson).  Jonas behaves suspiciously, and when he leaves work, Scudder follows him to his apartment.  While there he discovers that the partner of the second victim lives in the building opposite.  Beginning to see a connection, Scudder goes up onto the roof of Jonas’s building and finds a shed that contains evidence of Jonas’ involvement in her kidnapping and murder.  When Jonas returns, he gives Scudder a name – Ray – then jumps off the roof to his death.

Later, Scudder learns that the first victim was a DEA agent, and that the kidnappers may be rogue or ex-DEA agents themselves, as the second victim and Kenny’s wife were both linked to drug dealers.  When they kidnap a fourth victim, the daughter of a Russian drug dealer, Yuri (Roché), he calls on Kenny and Scudder’s help.  Scudder negotiates a ransom drop in the same cemetery where he met Jonas, but the drop goes badly, and the kidnappers get away… with TJ hiding in their van.

Walk Among the Tombstones, A - scene

Adapted from the tenth book in the series of Matt Scudder novels written by Lawrence Block, A Walk Among the Tombstones is a grim, atmospheric crime thriller that features a brooding, melancholy performance from Neeson, and suitably gloomy New York locations.  It’s a look at the darker, seedier side of Life that is impressively realised by writer/director Frank, and draws the viewer in from its opening shootout (which has tragic consequences), to its blood-soaked denouement in the basement of the kidnappers’ house.  Brief moments of levity do occur but they’re few and far between in a movie that anchors itself so effectively in the underbelly of criminal life that some viewers may be put off by its downbeat, distressing approach to the source material.

Carrying the movie like a well-worn overcoat is Neeson, his battered visage telling the audience all they need to know about Scudder and the kind of life he’s lived.  The scenes where he’s attending various AA meetings, while appearing as no more than standard character development, are instead chances for Neeson to show a more reflective, considered approach to the character.  These add subtly to the overall performance, grounding Scudder while the other characters aren’t quite so well fleshed out.  Neeson is a strong, credible actor, and when he’s the focus of a movie (as he is here), then the audience will follow him anywhere, even in something as nonsensical as Non-Stop (2014).

And it helps, because while A Walk Among the Tombstones is determinedly dour, this is a movie that does itself no favours when addressing its bad guys and what they do.  It’s dark, edgy stuff, and made all the more potent by the performances of Harbour and Thompson, who make Ray and his accomplice Albert two of the nastiest villains seen for a while, with the more garrulous Harbour making some truly horrifying dialogue sound even worse by virtue of Ray’s emotional and moral detachment.  These guys are evil, pure and simple, and as the black heart of the movie, are incredibly effective and completely justify Jonas’s decision to jump off the roof.

With a strong, capable hero and two loathsome villains in place, it’s disappointing that the remaining characters don’t quite resonate as much.  As Kenny, Stevens is oddly distant, his anger at his wife’s murder coming across as what’s expected of him rather than a real emotion (even after he’s gone through what happened).  TJ is the annoying would-be sidekick with a poignant back story that threatens to derail the movie – isn’t it enough that Scudder is looking to personally redeem himself, without the added responsibility of a homeless child as well (and one who, when hospitalised, isn’t handed over to social services)?  That said, Bradley does have a screen presence, and he makes the most of a potentially irritating character.

Morally complex it may be, and with drug dealers painted more sympathetically than usual, nevertheless the movie is a crime thriller, and as it ramps up the violence towards the end, the slow deliberate pace of the first half is ramped up as well, and gives the audience another chance to see Neeson in action hero mode (watch though for the table that breaks before it’s landed on).  There’s a satisfying conclusion, and if another Matt Scudder movie doesn’t get made, Frank’s polished, considered outing will stand on its own as an above average entry in the private eye genre.

Rating: 8/10 – stronger and more powerful than the average crime flick, this benefits from a committed turn by Neeson and has a funereal approach that works far better than perhaps it should; confident, absorbing and persuasive, A Walk Among the Tombstones is stirring stuff and shouldn’t be missed.

 

Maps to the Stars (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Maps to the Stars

D: David Cronenberg / 111m

Cast: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Evan Bird, Olivia Williams, Robert Pattinson, Sarah Gadon, Kiara Glasco, Dawn Greenhalgh

Arriving in Los Angeles, Agatha (Wasikowska) is met by limo driver/aspiring actor Jerome (Pattinson).  On the way to where she’s staying she asks him to drive to a spot up in the hills near to the Hollywood sign, though when they get there there isn’t a house where Agatha expects it to be.  Meanwhile, child actor Benjie Weiss (Bird) is in the middle of negotiations to star in the sequel to the movie that has made him a star.  However, a recent bout of substance abuse has the studio insisting on his sobriety.  At the same time, well-known actress Havana Segrand (Moore) is doing all she can to land the part her mother played in a remake of a 60’s classic.  Through a lucky piece of networking, Agatha ends up working for Havana as her P.A.

Agatha has burns from a fire that happened when she was younger and it’s revealed that she’s spent the last seven years in a psychiatric hospital as she caused the fire.  Her reason for coming to L.A. is to make amends to her family, parents Stafford (Cusack) and Christina (Williams), and her brother, who it turns out is Benjie.  When they learn she’s back in town they have different reactions but she sees them each in turn with differing results.  As troubled as Agatha is, she’s unaware of the ghosts Benjie sees, ghosts that are pushing him toward a violent outburst.  And Havana is tormented by visions of her mother (Gadon) before she died, visions that feed into her insecurity about playing her mother’s role.  A relationship blossoms with Jerome but is eventually undermined by Havana, while one of Benjie’s hallucinations causes a tragedy he can’t run away from… except with Agatha.  With violence blighting both their lives, they decide on a solution to their problems that will give them both peace from the demons that haunt them.

Maps to the Stars - scene

The first movie that David Cronenberg has made – if only partially – in the US, Maps to the Stars is a biting satire that explores the various tensions within one of the most dysfunctional families in recent movie history.  The Weisses are so screwed up as a family it’s a wonder any of them can function normally on a day to day basis.  Dad Stafford is a self-help guru cum massage therapist whose sense of his own relevance is underlined by the famous people he’s met, like the Dalai Lama.  He’s distant from his wife and son, and is worried that any adverse publicity will expose the secret he and Christina have shared for years.  For her part, Christina acts as a kind of manager for her son’s career, advising him and attending meetings with the studio.  She gets little recognition for her efforts from him, and she too is afraid their secret will be revealed. Both characters are unhappy and edgy in their own skins, and there is a distance between them that has become enforced through necessity, but their dependence on each other is the only way they can express their love for each other.

Benjie is thirteen and the kind of spoilt-minded child actor who thinks it’s okay to disrespect people and be abusive and mean-minded.  There’s a certain amount of insecurity about him, but it’s smothered by his “fuck you” attitude, and his need to be in control of his own life, independent of his parents.  By contrast, Agatha is the child who wants to make amends, who wants to see her family reunited, but doesn’t realise – or expect – that her optimism is misguided.  Her troubled history (controlled by several different medications) is in danger of defining her as an individual, and her job with Havana, and her romance with Jerome, help boost her confidence in dealing with Benjie and her parents.  When they both go wrong, she discards her meds, and it’s only when she does that she’s truly able to deal with things, even if the way in which she does is far from appropriate.  Self-confidence aside, it’s her schizophrenia that keeps her strong.

All four actors – Cusack, Williams, Bird and Wasikowska – prove excellent choices for their roles, and each one holds the viewer’s attention with ease in each of their scenes; when some of them are together, it’s like an embarrassment of riches, and it’s good to see Cusack back on form after the likes of Drive Hard and The Prince (both 2014).  But this is Moore’s movie all the way, her portrayal of an actress on the verge of becoming irrelevant both tragic and horrifying in its naked neediness and self-serving hypocrisy.  Moore’s no stranger to tortured female characters (whether self-inflicted or not), and here she adds yet another to the list, making Havana pitiable, self-destructive and venal in equal measure.  It’s a bravura performance, with Moore displaying Havana’s emotional vulnerability and lack of empathy, particularly in the horrifying scene where she celebrates getting her mother’s role through tragic circumstances.  She’s hypnotic to watch, and by far the best part of seeing the movie.

Good as the performances are though (and they are very good), there isn’t any easy way to connect with the characters.  Agatha has most of the viewer’s sympathy, but that slowly changes as the movie progresses.  Benjie is virtually irredeemable, while Stafford and Christina are too wrapped up in themselves to care about anyone else.  This is also a movie made with a degree of distance between the characters and the audience, and this appears to be down to Cronenberg’s approach to both them and Bruce Wagner’s screenplay.  His direction is as inventive as ever, and he deposits the Weisses and Havana in various large, open spaces to highlight their isolation (particularly their own homes).  As a movie that shines a light on how dysfunction and self-destruction can both encourage and propel certain people toward terrible actions, it’s a triumph.  But as a movie that identifies root causes and solid motivations for those actions it’s not so successful, leaving the viewer to scratch their head at how the characters can be so self-destructive, and with no attempts to seek help (even from Stafford).

However, there is a degree of dark humour here that some audiences will recognise, as well as moments of soap opera absurdity that threaten to undermine the overall cleverness of the script.  These are also predictable moments, and while some are necessary for certain storylines to move forward, it’s a shame that they’ve been included, as they actually cause the movie’s flow to stutter when they occur.  Still, there’s more here that’s good than bad, and it’s compelling on several levels.

Rating: 8/10 – another winner from Cronenberg, Maps to the Stars has a few, minor faults, and will certainly divide audiences, but fans will lap it up, while newcomers to Cronenberg’s oeuvre may be non-plussed by the observational approach; with a raft of intriguing, well-constructed performances, the movie offers far more than is obvious at first glance.

Top 10 Actresses at the Box Office

Tags

, , , ,

Having looked at who makes up the Top 10 Actors at the Box Office, it’s time to see which ten actresses are the most popular with the cinema-going public.  There are a couple of actresses you might not expect to see in the list, but with the preponderance of movie series’ that are out there, most shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

NOTE: HGM stands for Highest Grossing Movie, and the figures represent the worldwide gross.  And all figures are courtesy of boxofficemojo.com.

10 – Anne Hathaway / HGM: The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – $1,084,439,099

Anne Hathaway

While you might not hear the phrase, “Let’s go see the new Anne Hathaway movie” very often, nevertheless she has made some good commercial choices over the years, from The Devil Wears Prada (2006) to Alice in Wonderland (2010), all the way to her Oscar winning performance in Les Misérables (2012).  With a role in Christopher Nolan’s upcoming Interstellar, and a return to Wonderland in 2016, her place on the list seems assured for some time to come.

9 – Scarlett Johansson / HGM: The Avengers (2012) – $1,518,594,910

Scarlett Johansson

Outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Johansson has made a number of movies that have performed well (if not spectacularly), and she’s often the best thing in them.  With some canny choices behind her – The Prestige (2006), We Bought a Zoo (2011) – it will be interesting to see how her career develops, as, Black Widow aside, she doesn’t seem to gravitate to one particular kind of role.  But with multiple trips to the Marvel well ahead of her, her place on this list is assured.

8 – Sandra Bullock / HGM: Gravity (2013) – $716,392,705

Sandra Bullock

With a career that now spans over twenty years, and with a proven track record in both drama and comedy, it’s Bullock’s more recent forays into drama that have won her the most acclaim and industry kudos.  She doesn’t always make the right choices – Gun Shy (2000), All About Steve (2009), a certain sequel that Keanu Reeves wisely side-stepped – but she has a loyal fan base that will probably keep her in the Top 10 for the foreseeable future, even though at present, the only movie she definitely has on the horizon is next year’s Minions.

7 – Sigourney Weaver / HGM: Avatar (2009) – $2,787,965,087

Sigourney Weaver

Weaver’s inclusion on this list is due mainly to her role in James Cameron’s epic, and the combined totals for the Alien series – even Alien Resurrection made over $161m – as, like Scarlett Johansson, she’s made a number of movies that have performed well enough at the box office but which aren’t as repeat-friendly as you might expect.  Still, with three Avatar sequels in the pipeline, Weaver’s likely to be heading on up the list come 2017, but with a career that’s often been more about the material than the box office, it should be the other movies she makes that will be the more interesting to watch.

6 – Kathy Bates / HGM: Titanic (1997) – $2,186,772,302

Kathy Bates

Betcha didn’t see this actress being on the list anywhere!  Cameron’s blockbuster aside, Bates has appeared in some well-received movies over the years, from Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) to About Schmidt (2002) to The Blind Side (2012), as well as her Oscar winning role in Misery (1990).  She’s an actress you can rely on whatever the movie, and while she’s not a box office draw by herself, she’s definitely earned her place on the list (though how long she’ll remain here will probably be down to her fellow listees).

5 – Cate Blanchett / HGM: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) – $1,119,929,521

Cate Blanchett

Perhaps of all the actresses in the list, Blanchett has the best resumé, her movie choices over the years having proved that she has a keen eye for a good script.  Even where a movie hasn’t quite worked out as its makers would have hoped – Bandits (2001), Robin Hood (2010) – she’s still been eminently watchable and, as in the wretchedly disappointing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), has risen above the constraints of the material.  Her alliance with Peter Jackson and the realm of Middle Earth has certainly propelled her to this point in the list, so she’s another actress who won’t be dropping out anytime soon.

4 – Helena Bonham Carter / HGM: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011) – $1,341,511,219

Helena Bonham Carter

Your husband is a gifted, visionary filmmaker who regularly finds roles for you in his movies.  Do you turn him down, afraid of cries of favouritism?  Or do you take every opportunity he gives you, and so cement your place in the list of the top ten actresses at the box office?  It’s a no-brainer really, but Carter’s place at number four does rely heavily on her work with Tim Burton and the latter entries in the Harry Potter saga.  But even so she’s a remarkably talented actress who does some of her best work in movies that get very little exposure – Till Human Voices Wake Us (2002), Enid (2009) – and with a return trip to Wonderland fast approaching, she’s not moving from this list for some considerable time.

3 – Julia Roberts / HGM: Pretty Woman (1990) – $463,406,268

Julia Roberts

Is it really almost twenty-five years since Pretty Woman made an overnight star of Julia Roberts?  (Well, yes of course it is.)  One of the most consistently successful actresses of the last quarter century, she’s achieved her place on the list without the benefit of being part of a franchise (the first two Ocean’s movies are the nearest she’s come to being in a series), and by virtue of making some very astute choices; a case in point: Charlotte’s Web (2006) took over $144m.  Despite a couple of missteps in recent years, she’s still an actress who commands attention, and with a role in the upcoming remake of The Secret in Their Eyes (2009), it seems she’s not about to slow down anytime soon.

2 – Emma Watson / HGM: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011) – $1,341,511,219

Emma Watson

The youngest member of the Top 10 owes her place to a certain bespectacled wizard, but with This Is the End (2013) and Noah (2014) both taking over $100m at the box office (and Noah considerably more), she seems to have secured her future (and put Hermione firmly behind her).  Watson effectively has the world at her feet and it’ll be interesting to see if she continues to make as many interesting movies as she’s made in the last few years.  Whatever happens, her place on the list is assured (and especially if J.K. Rowling bows to popular demand and comes up with Harry Potter: The Adult Years).

1 – Cameron Diaz / HGM: Shrek 2 (2004) – $919,838,758

Cameron Diaz

Ruling the roost is an actress whose career has had its ups and downs in recent years, but even the critical duds have made money (The Green Hornet (2011) somehow made $227,817,248 – incredible).  With the Shrek franchise, plus fourteen other movies that have broken the $100m barrier, Diaz is an A-lister who consistently brings in the audiences (especially when she’s starring in a comedy).  With the remake of Annie due later this year, and a return to being a Bad Teacher also on the cards, Diaz’s mix of safe movies interspersed with more edgy fare looks set to continue to keep her in the top spot.

The Longest Week (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

Longest Week, The

D: Peter Glanz / 86m

Cast: Jason Bateman, Olivia Wilde, Billy Crudup, Jenny Slate, Tony Roberts, Barry Primus, Laura Clery

Conrad Valmont (Bateman) is a man in his early forties who has never had a job, lives in a hotel apartment owned by his wealthy parents (who he hasn’t seen in years), and who has few real friends.  He sees a therapist, Barry (Roberts) on a regular basis but pays little heed to what Barry advises him.  When his parents split up, neither one of them wants the responsibility of continuing to pay his allowance, so one day Conrad is told by the hotel management that he’s being evicted.  On the subway, travelling to a friend’s, Conrad sees a young woman (Wilde) he finds himself attracted to, and even though they only exchange looks, she gives him her phone number.

Conrad arrives at his friend’s apartment, but lies about the eviction, and tells his friend, Dylan (Crudup), that his suite is being redecorated.  Dylan welcomes him in, and later they attend a party where Dylan introduces Conrad to the woman he’s currently dating; it’s the woman on the subway, and her name is Beatrice.  There’s clearly an attraction between Conrad and Beatrice, and it’s something Dylan is afraid of.  He tells his friend repeatedly not to try anything with her.  Conrad agrees to stay away from Beatrice, but he reneges on the agreement straight away and starts seeing Beatrice behind Dylan’s back.

The three of them – plus a date for Conrad, Jocelyn (Slate) – go out for the evening, but the two couples pair off, leaving Dylan with Jocelyn, and Conrad with Beatrice.  Conrad tells Dylan he’s seeing Beatrice and Dylan throws him out.  He goes to stay with Beatrice but keeps quiet about his circumstances.  The couple go to see a theatre performance but Conrad inexplicably leaves Beatrice on her own; later that same evening, he sees her and Dylan in a cafe together.  An argument leads to Conrad telling Beatrice he’s homeless and broke.  They break up but not before Beatrice reveals the reason she and Dylan met up that night.

Leaving Beatrice’s, Conrad is knocked off his scooter by a truck; he suffers minor injuries.  He tries to get back with Beatrice, and rebuild his friendship with Dylan, but there’s a twist in store for him, one that will change things for the better and for good.

Longest Week, The - scene

With the look and feel of a sophisticated romantic comedy, The Longest Week is a movie that does its best to appear artless and affecting, but which ends up being a bit of a hard slog to get through.  With such a narcissistic main character, Peter Glanz’s debut feature struggles to involve its audience in Conrad’s efforts to win the heart of the fair Beatrice, and makes him largely unsympathetic throughout.  His privileged existence is portrayed as a fait accompli, an unfortunate outcome from his parents’ continual travelling abroad.  Cocooned in his suite, Conrad has little idea of how to engage with “real” people, even his trusted chauffeur, Bernard (Primus).  When he’s evicted – and later, when he tries to sneak back in with Beatrice in tow – his world view remains the same, and his sense of entitlement is rarely compromised.  With such a closed off, selfish main character, the movie is at an immediate disadvantage: it makes it very hard to like him.

As portrayed by Bateman, Conrad is an arrogant martinet, a slightly jaded rich kid who’s never really grown up.  Bateman is good in the role, but he still has to try hard to make Conrad likeable, and – thanks to Glanz’s script – he doesn’t always succeed.  He gives a mannered performance that highlights Conrad’s sense of entitlement, while at the same time, doing his best to redeem the character by the movie’s end.  It’s too much for the actor to achieve under ordinary circumstances, but with The Longest Week having the look and the feel of a Wes Anderson project (with extra added nods to Woody Allen), it’s a performance that feels incomplete, as if Bateman was given a character study that was missing a vital page in the middle.

Wilde and Crudup hold their own, but their characters aren’t very well defined.  Beatrice is close to being a cipher, a woman who exists (within the script) to justify Conrad’s gradual change in the way he sees the world.  The change is minimal, though, and undermines the preceding ninety minutes, leaving the viewer wondering if the storyline was adequately transcribed to screen.  For a character’s story arc to have such little effect, and promote such little change, makes for an uncomfortable movie, and an equally uncomfortable viewing experience.  It’s not Bateman’s fault, though: he does his best with a script that settles for enigmatic instead of decisive.

Glanz directs with confidence but it’s in service to a script that’s as lightweight as a feather and he seeks to add depth and meaning at every turn, but without success.  Sometimes arch, but mostly forgettable, the movie has little that’s new to say about relationships and keeps its comedy locked up except for “special” occasions.

Rating: 4/10 – lifeless and uninvolving for long stretches, The Longest Week is a romantic comedy where both elements don’t quite connect; with characters that are hard to care about, it’s a movie that’s as shallow as its main protagonist.

Loom (2012)

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

Loom

D: Luke Scott / 21m

Cast: Giovanni Ribisi, Jellybean Howie, Jae Jung, Patrick Foy, Evelyn Edwards, Gino Aquino, Erica Piccininni

Tommi Galvin (Ribisi) is a technician in a protein growth factory, monitoring and manipulating meat products for the mass consumer market.  He’s quiet, fastidious, and apparently conscientious about his work: with colleagues he’s peremptory and quite curt.  What they don’t know is that Tommi is stealing growth hormones to help with a project that he’s working on at home.

His latest theft of the growth hormone appears to have the desired effect on his “experiment”, but the arrival of two law enforcement agents (Jung, Foy) leads to an unexpected, unfortunate reversal of fortune.

Loom - scene

Made to showcase the new 4K camera technology, Loom is a bleak, dystopian piece of science fiction directed by Ridley Scott’s son, Luke.  The world of the future is presented as a bland, antiseptic place where Man interacts on a conservative, non-social level, and where the environment is regulated and controlled for the greater good.  It’s a largely sterile world, all neutral colours and impersonal living and work spaces.  The production design by Chris Seagers is crisp and precise and expands on current architecture to provide a convincing look at the future, and supports the storyline’s examination of how we connect with other people in the face of an a sterile, distant social order.

With the world around Galvin so well constructed, Loom focuses on the sense of alienation he feels; even when he’s spending time with his “partner”, Escha (Howie), there’s a disconnect that you can see he wants to overcome but is struggling with.  His agitation at the arrival of agents Seville and Walton gives rise to an emotional reaction to subsequent events that is reassuring for his continued humanity (though it’s likely he’ll be either on the run or in prison).  Galvin’s calm, measured demeanour is impressively played by Ribisi, his passive features hiding a personality that’s striving to make a difference, if only for himself.  As Escha, Howie has a difficult role that requires her to behave with a childlike detachment, though she’s scarily effective too when the agents turn up, and she and Galvin’s relationship is threatened.

In the director’s chair, Scott displays a confidence and control in the material that augurs well for future projects, and aided by cinematographer Darius Wolski, paints a picture of the future that feels eerily prescient.  The movie is often deceptively beautiful to look at, and the clarity of the image more than upholds the decision to use the 4K cameras.

Rating: 8/10 – intriguing – though not as thought-provoking as its set up might lead viewers to expect – Loom is an impressive debut from Scott, and features a surprisingly complex performance from Ribisi; well worth seeing, and a movie that leaves you wondering what happens next.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sin City A Dame to Kill For

D: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller / 102m

Cast: Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Eva Green, Powers Boothe, Dennis Haysbert, Ray Liotta, Christopher Meloni, Jeremy Piven, Christopher Lloyd, Jaime King, Juno Temple, Stacy Keach, Marton Csokas, Jude Ciccolella, Jamie Chung, Julia Garner

Basin City, night.  Marv (Rourke) is having trouble remembering what’s happened to him as he surveys the wreckage of two cars and the bodies of two young men lying in the road.  As the night’s events become clearer, he remembers an encounter with four young men, and being shot by one of them.  Heading for the Projects, two of the young men attempt to ambush Marv but they’re stopped by unseen assailants.  Marv kills them both and chases the other two down, bringing his memory full circle.

At Kadie’s Bar, a poker game in a back room is presided over by Senator Roark (Boothe).  Johnny (Gordon-Levitt), a drifter, invites himself into the game and wins big, earning the enmity of the Senator.  Later, Johnny has the fingers of his lucky hand broken by the Senator, and is shot in the leg as well.  Johnny swears revenge but Roark is dismissive of the threat, believing himself invincible because of the power he wields.

Elsewhere in Basin City, private eye Dwight (Brolin) receives a phone call from someone he’d hoped he’d never hear from again, old flame Ava (Green).  They meet, and she reveals she is in an abusive marriage, and is fearful for her life.  When she’s forced to leave by Manute (Haysbert), who works for her husband, Dwight decides to find out more.  He goes to Ava’s home but is caught by Manute and viciously beaten up.  Back at his apartment, Dwight receives another visit from Ava and they have sex, but again Manute arrives and takes her away.  Enlisting Marv’s help, Dwight returns to Ava’s home, where he kills her husband, Damien (Csokas), but soon realises he’s been set up by Ava who shoots him.  Marv (who’s blinded Manute in a vicious fight between the two) rescues Dwight and they get away to Old Town.  Helped by old friend Gail (Dawson), Dwight recovers and enlists her help in seeking revenge on Ava.  They return to Ava’s home to settle matters once and for all.

Johnny finds a doctor (Lloyd) to help him with his injuries and he returns to the poker game where once again he beats Roark.  His victory is short-lived as Roark turns the tables on him once more.  While Roark reclaims his standing, Nancy (Alba), a stripper at Kadie’s, plots to kill him in revenge for the death of Hartigan (Willis), a cop she cared about.  But Nancy drinks too much and hasn’t the courage to act on her anger.  In a fit of rage, she disfigures herself, which leads Marv to offer his help.  Together they make their way to Roark’s estate, where Nancy comes face to face with the Senator.

Sin City A Dame to Kill For - scene

Arriving nine years after its predecessor, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For retains many of the earlier movie’s characters, the same visual approach, hard-boiled dialogue and non-linear storytelling, and extreme bouts of violence.  As a companion piece, the movie works well, but there’s something missing from the experience: anything new.

The first movie worked precisely because it was new.  The mixture of live action and CGI, allied to heavily stylised violence and Frank Miller’s nihilistic characters, was, in its own way, a refreshing change from other violent dramas (and thankfully proved hard to duplicate).  The problem here is that Miller and Rodriguez have stuck too closely to the original formula, leaving Sin City: A Dame to Kill For looking and feeling like a greatest hits version of the first movie, rather than a bona fide sequel.  It’s disquieting to realise as you watch the movie that everything’s the same, and with that realisation it also becomes clear that this outing is going to lack the verve and complexity of Miller and Rodriguez’s first collaboration.  The tone is the same and there’s no variation.

Worse still is the lack of investment in certain characters, notably Johnny who we don’t really care about, despite his opposition to Senator Roark, and Nancy, whose bitter reluctance to act against the Senator seems forced rather than natural.  Twice she has him in her sights while performing a routine, and both times she fails to pull the trigger.  Credible?  No; and nor is Marv appearing in each storyline, and helping out in the same fashion on two separate occasions (it’s also problematical that he died in the first movie – why is he in this one?)  Hartigan returns as a ghost but makes almost no impact on Nancy’s story, while Gail and her team of female assassins are treated like bystanders.

Even the cast can’t raise this one from its slumbers, though Green makes the biggest impression, making Ava one of the most deceitful and alluring femme fatales to be seen for some time (she’s naked quite a lot as well, and shot in a fetishistic fashion that is reserved only for her).  Brolin subs for Clive Owen, and Boothe steps out from behind Rutger Hauer to play the movie’s main villain with aggressive panache.

Ultimately, the stories aren’t strong enough, or interesting enough, to resonate beyond a first viewing, and by the end, even the violence has lost its charm, becoming repetitive and – sadly – unexciting.  What’s left is an uneven mix that doesn’t know how to straighten itself out or make itself more coherent.

Rating: 5/10 – below par in pretty much every department with just enough being done to make the movie look better than it actually is, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is a sequel that tries hard to recreate the magic of its forerunner, but never really succeeds; if a further entry is planned, Messrs Miller and Rodriguez will need to spend more time at the drawing board before committing anything to film.

The Equalizer (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

Equalizer, The

D: Antoine Fuqua / 131m

Cast: Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloë Grace Moretz, David Harbour, Haley Bennett, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, David Meunier, Johnny Skourtis

Robert McCall (Washington) is a quiet, reserved man who works at a hardware store in Boston and is generally well liked by his colleagues.  At home he lives a somewhat monastic, ordered lifestyle, and the only time he appears to go out is when he goes to a local diner and reads his latest book.  As a regular he gets to know Terri (Moretz), a teen prostitute with ambitions to be a singer.  When McCall witnesses her being mistreated by her pimp, Slavi (Meunier), and then she ends up in the hospital, badly beaten up, he decides to do something about it.  He pays Slavi a visit, and when negotiations don’t go as he’d hoped, he kills Slavi and four of his men.

What McCall doesn’t know is that Slavi was part of the East Coast Russian mob, and he’s singlehandedly taken out the Boston hub of that organisation.  The mob sends a fixer, Teddy (Csokas), to find the person responsible, but it takes a while, during which time McCall gets on with helping others who are experiencing crime-related problems.  When Teddy finally tracks him down, McCall decides to turn the tables on him and become the hunter instead of the hunted.  Striking at the mob’s operation while staying one step ahead of Teddy’s efforts to find and kill him, McCall reveals further aspects of a past that no one knows about, and which he keeps hidden.

When Teddy discovers a potential weakness in McCall’s character, his friendships with the people he works with, he holds them hostage and gives McCall an ultimatum: either give himself up or they all die.  But McCall has other ideas…

Equalizer, The - scene

Adapted from the US TV show that ran from 1985-1989 and starred Edward Woodward, The Equalizer is a big screen reboot that trades that series’ subtlety and clever plotting for a more direct, impactful approach, despite its slow burn opening and attempts at deft character work.  It’s a long while before McCall’s visit to Slavi, and during that time we get to see him at home, at work, at the diner, leading a normal life of sorts, but obviously lonely rather than a loner.  We learn that he’s a widower, and that he’s working his way through a list of books his wife was aiming to read before she died.  He helps a co-worker, Ralphie (Skourtis), prepare for a security guard exam, jokes with other co-workers that he was once one of Gladys Knight’s Pips, and encourages Terri to change her life and follow her dream of being a singer.  He’s kind, attentive, supportive, fair, but still a bit of an enigma.

It’s all “good stuff” and gives Washington a chance to show off his acting chops (which are considerable), and serves to introduce McCall as just more than the violent avenger he’s soon to become.  But the drawback is that once McCall faces off against Slavi and his men, all that character build-up is jettisoned in favour of a more traditional action thriller style movie, and Washington stops being Mr Average and becomes an invincible righter of wrongs.  In many ways this is unavoidable, the nature of the story giving the director and his star little option but to revert to the tried and trusted approach of blowing shit up and killing a whole bunch of stuntmen.  But thankfully, and despite the increasingly derivative nature of the narrative, Fuqua’s distinctive visual style and Washington’s reliable acting skills hold the viewer’s attention, and offset some of the more ludicrous moments (McCall walks away from a series of huge, multiple explosions at such an insanely slow pace it’s less a case of a cool looking moment than a clue that Denzel can’t run that fast anymore).

In the end, The Equalizer reveals itself as an origin story, prepping the way for potential sequels (though Washington has yet to make one).  On this evidence, any further outings will need to address the issue of how much McCall’s character will be focused on, and whether or not aspects such as his borderline OCD is dealt with (it’s featured, but isn’t developed, the same as his use of a stopwatch to time certain moments and incidents).  The storylines will need to be a bit more impressive as well, and a more serious adversary to give a much needed sense of threat; Teddy is certainly psychotic but McCall outwits and dispatches him too easily, leaving any possibility of tension or doubt about the outcome so far behind it’s practically invisible.

As a vehicle for Washington, The Equalizer is a good fit, and he’s ably supported by Csokas, Moretz and Harbour, while Pullman and Leo appear as old friends of McCall who know his history.  Richard Wenk’s script works best when focusing on McCall as Mr Average, and his relationships with Terri and Ralphie are skilfully drawn.  The action scenes are expertly choreographed (though a fight between McCall and one of Teddy’s men is scrappily edited: blows are landed but who’s being hit is mostly a mystery), and Mauro Fiore’s cinematography adds a vitality that helps counter the familiarity that builds once Slavi bites the dust.

Rating: 7/10 – although it eventually proves an entertaining introduction to Robert McCall and his “set of skills”, The Equalizer is too formulaic to have much of a genuine impact; a good vehicle for Washington but not a movie to stay in the memory for too long despite the positives (that the movie then squanders).

Poster of the Week – Vera Drake (2004)

Tags

, , , ,

Vera Drake

Vera Drake (2004)

At first glance, this poster for Mike Leigh’s 50’s set drama looks drab and unappealing, its bland colour scheme and triple image of Vera herself (as played by Imelda Staunton) lacking any appreciable vibrancy or vitality.  It’s a poster for a Mike Leigh movie, a dark, often uncompromising look at the life of a woman whose personal sense of morality was at odds with both society and the criminal justice system of the time.  It’s a hard sell, even with Leigh in the driving seat, but whatever your views on the movie itself, the poster is unassuming, yet brilliantly devised.

The main focus is obviously the triptych.  An image of Vera repeated against differing backgrounds that in some way reflect the description given of her in each panel.  In the first, she’s a Wife, and the wallpaper depicts a wild growth of branch and flower, a more sensual, earthy tone that emphasises the carnal nature of marriage.  It’s telling us that Vera is first and foremost a woman (which isn’t so obvious when watching the movie).  In the second panel, she’s a Mother, and the wallpaper is less attractive, more formal, its ordered pattern highlighting the conformity that Vera has taken on by having a child.  Her life is no longer as carefree as it was.

And then there is the final panel, a stark portrayal of Vera as a Criminal, the background a bare brick wall, the kind you might encounter in a prison cell.  It’s a powerful conclusion, reflecting the distance Vera has travelled from that first, happier, image.  Here is one woman’s journey in Life portrayed succinctly and with effortless flair.  This is a tremendously evocative poster – for a tremendously evocative and moving movie – and while the press quote may seem a little grandiose, there’s no denying that, as far as the poster goes, it really is “magnificent”.

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Magic in the Moonlight

D: Woody Allen / 97m

Cast: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Simon McBurney, Eileen Atkins, Hamish Linklater, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver, Erica Leerhsen, Jeremy Shamos, Catherine McCormack

Berlin, 1928.  British magician Stanley Crawford (Firth) astounds audiences as Chinese illusionist Wei Ling Soo, making elephants disappear and appearing to materialise himself out of thin air.  After another successful show, the arrogant, rude-minded Stanley is met by his old friend from childhood Howard Burkan (McBurney).  Burkan is also a magician, and he comes with a proposal: for Stanley to travel with him to the Côte d’Azur and expose a young American woman who is posing as a medium and exploiting Burkan’s friends, the Catledges.  Stanley, who abhors fake mediums and enjoys exposing them, agrees to go.

At the Catledges, Stanley is introduced to the young woman in question, Sophie Baker (Stone), and her mother (Harden).  He pretends to be a businessman called Taplinger but he is unable to restrain his skepticism, and although he does his best to hide his true identity, Sophie proves adept at “receiving” clues as to who he really is.  Still convinced she’s a fraud, he observes her during a séance but is unable to detect any trickery.  The next day, Sophie reveals she knows who Stanley is, and she warns him that she really has a gift, and that he shouldn’t doubt her.  But Stanley is becoming increasingly besotted with her, and while he has some lingering doubts, he finds himself spending more and more time with her, despite Sophie being wooed by Brice Catledge (Linklater).

Stanley takes Sophie to see his Aunt Vanessa (Atkins).  Sophie asks to hold a piece of Vanessa’s jewellery, and when she does, she reveals information about an affair that Vanessa had, and which Sophie couldn’t possibly have any knowledge of.  Now convinced that Sophie has a gift, he determines to hold a press conference where he will admit that his previous disbelief has been overturned.  The results of a further séance reinforces Stanley’s change of mind and heart.  Later, at a ball, Sophie asks him if he has any other feelings about her, but Stanley is baffled by her questions, and she leaves, disappointed.  Things come to a head when Aunt Vanessa is involved in a car crash, and Stanley finds himself praying for her survival on the operating table.  Will he embrace his newfound regard for the unseen, or will his skepticism return in the face of such a calamity?

Magic in the Moonlight - scene

This year’s annual movie offering from Woody Allen follows on from the sublime Blue Jasmine, and in comparison with that movie, Magic in the Moonlight is more Woody-lite than anything more substantial.  It’s a whimsical tale for the most part, anchored by a Scrooge-like performance by Firth that at times skirts perilously close to complete misanthropy, but which is rescued by the sheer pomposity of the character and his outlook on Life.  Crawford’s petulant skepticism and sarcastic attitude verges on the unpalatable throughout, but thanks to Firth, and Allen’s skill as a writer, he has just enough hidden vulnerability for the audience to connect with.  However, for large stretches of the movie he’s deliberately insufferable, and it’s difficult to understand what on earth Sophie could see in him (opposites do attract, but here it’s a little too extraordinary).

With its lead character so defiantly unlikeable for so much of the time, it falls to Stone to put some warmth and heart into the proceedings.  As the good-natured ingénue, Sophie, Stone is affecting, appealing, effortlessly lively, and the complete antithesis to Stanley, her winning smile and wide-eyed features both endearing and captivating.  It’s a more extrovert performance, but with a degree of subtlety that is best seen when Sophie enquires after Stanley’s feelings for her.  Her earnest entreaties, and her reaction to Stanley’s dismissal of the notion that he has a romantic interest in her, is cleverly done, and mesmerising to watch.

However, two good central performances aside, this is still a movie that trundles from one scene to the next without requiring much of a response from the audience, or indeed, any real investment in the plot or the characters.  The plotting is predictable, and the theme of science versus religion (or at least, the paranormal) is handled with Allen’s usual surety, but there’s still something lacking, a spark, perhaps, that stops the movie from being either memorable or touching.  The outcome is never in doubt, and while Allen pulls a dubious sleight-of-hand to get there – as well as twisting Stanley’s arm mercilessly towards the very end – a less conventional conclusion would have made all the difference.  (And how many more times will Allen trot out the old May-December romance we’ve seen so often in the past?)

The supporting cast – Atkins aside – have little to do except make up the numbers, and if no other characters stand out as much then it’s no one’s fault but Allen’s, his less than absorbing approach, and lightweight direction failing to lift the admittedly unsubstantial material.  That said, there are some delicious lines of dialogue here and there (as you’d expect, even in Allen’s lesser works), and the South of France is beautifully lensed by Darius Khondji, the colours (of the surrounding countryside in particular) popping and flaring in a way that hasn’t been seen in any of Allen’s previous work.  There’s the usual round up of jazz favourites from the Twenties and Thirties, but not all the compositions fit in this time, and Alisa Lepselter’s editing often leaves scenes hanging around just those few frames longer than necessary.  It all adds up to a Woody Allen movie that feels like a stopgap before the next really good project.

Rating: 6/10 – there’s just enough here to keep audiences occupied, but Magic in the Moonlight isn’t the romantic comedy delight of say, Midnight in Paris (2011); with a curmudgeonly central character holding it back, the movie ends up feeling like a magician’s parlour trick, but one where everybody knows how the trick is done.

Leprechaun: Origins (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leprechaun Origins

D: Zach Lipovsky / 90m

Cast: Stephanie Bennett, Andrew Dunbar, Melissa Roxburgh, Brendan Fletcher, Dylan Postl, Garry Chalk, Teach Grant, Bruce Blain, Mary Black

Backpacking through Ireland, two young American couples – Sophie (Bennett) and Ben (Dunbar), Jeni (Roxburgh) and David (Fletcher) – are heading for a mysterious village that has a standing stone on its outskirts.  At the inn, the friends get talking to Hamish (Chalk), a local who appears friendly and welcoming, and when he learns they are interested in the village’s history, he offers them the chance to stay overnight in a cabin just outside the village.  The friends take up Hamish’s offer, and though the cabin isn’t exactly comfortable, they settle in for the night.  Some time later, Jeni hears a noise outside.

The four friends soon realise there’s something “out there” and that it wants to get in. When it does, the quartet escape the cabin only to discover that Hamish has set them up to be sacrifices to a creature they call a leprechaun.  Horrified to find that the legend is real, the four now find themselves having to defend themselves from the murderous attacks of the leprechaun, but also from a determined Hamish and his son, a more sympathetic Sean (Grant).  As the leprechaun picks them off one by one, it becomes clear that the only way to survive the night is to reach the standing stone, which not only marks the village boundary but is the point beyond which the leprechaun cannot go.

Leprechaun Origins - scene

It was perhaps inevitable that, in the wake of all the other horror reboots that have been foisted on us over the last six or seven years, the Leprechaun series would be dusted off and given the update treatment.  However, the only thing this particular remake/reboot/reimagining proves is – once again – that some movies shouldn’t be made, especially when there’s as little imagination and skill involved as there is here.  The original sextet of Leprechaun movies may be fondly remembered for their cheesy humour and semi-inventive killings, and they may have made Warwick Davis even more well-known than his turn as Wicket in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, but they still got worse as they went on until the last entry, 2003’s Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood, had all but jettisoned the horror in favour of infantile humour.  With that in mind, the producers’ decision to go a different route is to be applauded.  Alas, it’s the only thing they got right.

They say it’s easy enough to make a horror movie, but on this evidence, the adage should read: it’s easy enough to make a terrible horror movie.  Because Leprechaun: Origins is exactly that: a terrible horror movie.  It features by-the-numbers, uninspired plotting that sees the four friends running from one building or vehicle to another ad nauseam; phoned in performances from a cast who give new meaning to the word insipid; direction that distracts due to its waywardness and lack of cohesion; dialogue that sounds like it was dictated through hidden earpieces and repeated by the cast; the by now obligatory Canadian locations that are blandly photographed (by Mahlon Todd Williams); a score by Jeff Tymoschuk that does little to increase the minimal amounts of tension created by Harris Wilkinson’s unimaginative script; a creature that is supposed to be single-minded in its purpose but which pauses/hesitates/suspends its attempts to kill everyone when the script requires it (and whether they have gold on them or not); a special effects budget that limits itself to one (admittedly effective) kill shot; and the entirely predictable post credits scene that sets up an equally predictable sequel (though hopefully this outing will do so badly it won’t happen).

With the movie looking so much like a drab, lacklustre slasher movie – though without the benefit of having an actual slasher in it – the casual viewer might expect the leprechaun itself to be more effectively realised than the Gollum/Orc-style creature presented here.  Worse still is the movie’s advertising, which heavily promotes WWE “superstar” Hornswoggle (aka Dylan Postl) as the leprechaun.  It’s a bit of a cheat on WWE’s part to do so as Postl is unrecognisable beneath the layers of leprechaun make up, and has no lines either (though this is probably a good thing).  Literally anyone could play the role in these circumstances, and while it’s always been the case that WWE tailor their “superstars” movie roles to their experience/acting skills, it doesn’t say much for Postl that he’s buried so completely in the part.

And lastly, a quick mention for the deceptive running time.  The end credits (including the post credits scene mentioned above) run for a full twelve minutes, so the movie is, in real terms, much shorter… but it still drags like watching a balloon slowly deflate.

Rating: 3/10 – woeful from start to finish, Leprechaun: Origins screams “cheap and nasty rip off”; with cast and crew displaying a bare minimum of commitment or creativity, this is one reboot that has little or no chance of striking gold.

 

The Guest (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Guest, The

D: Adam Wingard / 99m

Cast: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Leland Orser, Sheila Kelley, Lance Reddick, Chase Williamson, Joel David Moore, Ethan Embry, Tabatha Shaun

Shortly after the death of her son Caleb while he was in Afghanistan, Laura Peterson (Kelley) receives an unexpected visit from a young man who served with Caleb and has come to honour a promise he made.  David (Stevens) is welcomed into the Peterson household and despite initially unsure reactions from dad Spencer (Orser), daughter Anna (Monroe) and younger son Luke (Meyer), he soon wins their trust.

But when strange incidents begin to happen around town – Spencer’s boss is killed in mysterious circumstances, Anna’s boyfriend is implicated in a murder – incidents that in some way benefit the Peterson family, Anna starts to wonder if David is everything that he says he is, even down to his having served with Caleb.  While Anna’s suspicions grow, Luke overhears David talking to a plastic surgeon on the phone (though he doesn’t tell anyone).  When Anna calls the military base that David said he was last stationed at before he was discharged, their response is to send an armed unit, led by Major Carver (Reddick) to apprehend him.

With David needing to move on sooner than he’d planned, it becomes clear that he has no intention of letting anyone he’s met in the last few days be left behind for the military (or anyone else) to talk to.  He sets about killing the Peterson’s and anyone else he feels is a liability.  With Carver in hot pursuit, David tracks Anna and Luke to their local high school, and an inevitable showdown.

Guest, The - scene

After the less than sophisticated home invasion story depicted in You’re Next (2011), director Wingard and writer Simon Barrett turn their attention to a more subtle variation on the same theme, with a cuckoo in the nest approach that reaps dividends thanks to a more controlled script, and strong performances from Stevens, Monroe, Kelley et al.

Thanks to Barrett’s more credible set up, The Guest draws the viewer in, allaying any initial fears the audience may have that this will turn out to be as predictable as, say, The Stepfather (1987).  But, while it’s a fair assumption to make – David is handsome, charming and polite, there are family tensions that mark out the Petersons as easily dividable – the way in which David’s more dubious undertakings are carried out have a disturbing frisson to them that obscures their obvious wrongdoing (and makes them partly acceptable for the audience).  Laura’s need for secondary contact with her son via David is understandable, and her vulnerability is well played by Kelley; there’s a quiet desperation to her scenes with Stevens that is often more touching than expected.

Spencer is a man at a standstill, attempting to make sense of his life through railing at what he sees as its inequalities, and yet, when he learns of his boss’s demise, and the promotion it means for him, his sense of place is so disturbed he can’t fathom how to react.  Orser (a much underrated actor) excels in what is an unsung role, and it’s great to see him in a movie where he’s not there to make up the numbers as in the Taken trilogy.

As their troubled offspring, Monroe and Meyer have larger roles but they’re a little too generic, with Anna’s doubtful behaviour and Luke’s need for an older brother substitute feeling more tired than dramatically necessary, and despite good performances from both, they can’t elevate their characters above the limitations set within the script.

With so much attention given to the Peterson family dynamic, it’s reassuring to find that David is much more complex than you might expect, and Stevens relishes the opportunity to take a trip to the dark side, making David attractive and dangerous at the same time, his military “training” having created a monster whose sense of morality is fleeting and impersonal.  That he chooses to help the Petersons in the way that he does is never fully explained (and is one of the ways in which the movie often feels more contrived than it needs to be).  Stevens is riveting as David, dispelling any memories of his role in TV’s Downton Abbey, and proving a superb choice in the title role, alternately charismatic and treacherous, and showing no contrition for his actions.

Beautifully filmed on location in New Mexico by Robby Baumgartner, The Guest benefits from a great cast and is smartly directed by Wingard who is improving with each movie he makes.  The movie’s midpoint sees some pacing issues and the Eighties style slasher finale at Anna and Luke’s high school is a little out of place – and makes the viewer wonder just what the school’s budget was to have created such a Halloween inspired maze/dancefloor/entrance etc.  And there’s a final shot that both echoes that Eighties conclusion and undermines it all at the same time.  It’s an understandable move by Wingard and Barrett but a bad one nevertheless, and is the cinematic version of leaving a sour taste in the mouth.

Rating: 7/10 – its unexpectedly derivative ending aside, The Guest is a welcome addition to the psycho thriller genre; gripping for most of its running time, it features a terrific performance from Stevens and shows no problem in being seductively cruel throughout.

Mini-Review: Not Safe for Work (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

Not Safe for Work

D: Joe Johnston / 74m

Cast: Max Minghella, JJ Feild, Eloise Mumford, Christian Clemenson, Tom Gallop, Molly Hagan

Tom Miller (Minghella) is a junior lawyer at the firm of Rosen, Byres and Emmerich.  In his attempts to get ahead he manages to antagonise one of the firm’s senior partners, and is fired.  As he leaves the building along with everyone else, he sees an exchange of briefcases that raises his suspicions.  He goes back up to where RB&E have their offices, and sees the man (Feild) who took the briefcase tampering with some of the electrics for that floor.  When the man is disturbed by Janine (Hagan), an RB&E employee, he cold-bloodedly shoots her.

Tom tries to raise the alarm but the telephones are dead and his mobile phone signal is blocked.  With only Roger (Gallop), an ex-colleague, and Emmerich (Clemenson), the partner who fired him, still working in the offices, Tom tries to stay one step ahead as he tries to figure out why the man is there.  With two high profile cases about to go to court, Tom has to find out which one the man is there to hinder, and who sent him.  A cat and mouse game develops when the man discovers Tom’s presence, a game that leads to further danger when the man tricks Anna (Mumford) (one of the firm’s secretaries and Tom’s secret girlfriend) into returning to the building.  Tom has to find a way of keep Anna safe from harm, while foiling the man and his attempt to set off an incendiary device in the firm’s file room.

Not Safe for Work - scene

Filmed in 2012 but only now gaining an audience, Not Safe for Work is a tepid, low budget thriller that hides a plethora of plot holes beneath its glossy surface, and emerges as a solid, if slightly pretentious thriller that coasts along on the back of its own improbability.  It’s a movie that’s hard to dislike despite its faults, and while Johnston does his best to create tension and a modicum of thrills, he’s powerless to overcome the ludicrous nature of Adam Mason and Simon  Boyes’ script, which plays like a first draft that was never rewritten.

Minghella is an unlikely hero, while Feild aims for urbane hitman, but misses the target by a mile, creating an arch, self-conscious performance that invites hilarity even more than it does menace.  With a twist that – of course – can be seen coming from as far off as Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), in the end, the movie works hard at what it does, but winds up being largely unremarkable.

Rating: 4/10 – there’s a neat premise at the heart of Not Safe for Work, but it’s one that’s buried beneath layers of unnecessary artifice; the brief running time is a bonus, though.

Into the Storm (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Into the Storm

D: Steven Quale / 89m

Cast: Richard Armitage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Matt Walsh, Max Deacon, Nathan Kress, Alycia Debnam Carey, Arlen Escarpeta, Jeremy Sumpter, Lee Whittaker, Kyle Davis, Jon Reep

Documentary filmmaker Pete Moore (Walsh) is having a hard time finding tornados to film for his latest project, despite help from meteorologist, Allison Stone (Callies).  When a storm warning is given out near Silverton, Oklahoma, Pete and his team rush there only for the storm to peter out.  Meanwhile, at the high school, the senior class is having its graduation day.  Assistant principal Gary Fuller (Armitage) is worried about the impending weather spoiling the day and wants the ceremony postponed.  He’s overruled and it goes ahead; partway through, the storm hits and a tornado causes damage to the school buildings and grounds.  At the same time, Fuller’s eldest son, Donnie (Deacon), is several miles away with fellow student, Kaitlyn (Carey), filming a project at an abandoned paper mill.  When the tornado hits there, they find themselves trapped beneath the debris.

Moore and his team continue to chase the ever-increasing number of tornados that keep springing up, while Fuller, accompanied by his younger son, Trey (Kress) try to rescue Donnie and Kaitlyn.  Their paths cross and they team up to find the youngsters (though Moore is still more interested in getting footage for his documentary).  They find them, but realise that a tornado the size of which has never been seen before is heading for the high school, and only they can save the people taking shelter there.

Into the Storm - scene

Into the Storm invites obvious comparisons with Jan de Bont’s Twister (1996), and while the special effects certainly look more impressive, there’s a level of detail in the earlier movie that’s missing here, and though this movie’s super-tornado dwarfs anything seen before, its scale and ferocity keeps changing (it chucks 747s around like so much matchwood, but can’t lift Moore’s tank-like tornado chaser until the screenplay says so).  What’s also missing is a decent script, John Swetnam’s attempts at excitement falling flatter than a pancake, and his characters behaving and sounding exactly like the stereotypes they are (they even behave predictably: Moore is a boorish ass for three quarters of the movie then suddenly acts selflessly – as if).

The script isn’t helped by Quale’s flaccid direction and a cast who look as if they know just how poor the script is, and have decided to do just as much as is needed to get their lines out with a minimum of effort.  Armitage is stranded in his role as the tough widower trying to raise two wayward sons, while Callies keeps stopping to (try to) have unnecessary phone calls with her five year old daughter.  And then there’s the dumbest duo on the planet, Donk (Davis) and Reevis (Reep), the redneck comic relief, who put themselves in harm’s way in the hope of becoming famous on YouTube.

While the movie aims for incredible scenes of destruction in between the banal theatrics of its characters, Into the Storm ultimately fails because there’s no one to care about, and the tornado scenes are about as thrilling as watching ice cream melt.  But it is a short movie, and while the decision to shoot found footage-style adds a level of immediacy to the devastation, it’s not enough to rescue the movie from falling far short of where the cow ends up.

Rating: 3/10 – adequate special effects and a mercifully short running time can’t make amends for the paucity of imagination and delivery on show here; the only area in which Into the Storm succeeds is that it’s a step up from being a SyFy Channel release.

Poster of the Week – Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954)

Tags

, , , , , , ,

Demetrius and the Gladiators

Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954)

With the advent of CinemaScope in 1953, the movies became bigger, grander, and more expansive, as befitted the new anamorphic format.  And as if to emphasise the new screen size, movie posters became bigger, grander, and more expansive as well, with landscape designs becoming more and more prevalent.  The first CinemaScope movie was The Robe (1953), a biblical drama starring Richard Burton.  As can be seen from the poster above, it spawned a sequel that featured a character from that first movie, the slave Demetrius played by Victor Mature.

What’s interesting about this particular poster is its devotion to cramming in as much incident from the movie as possible, much like the screen image audiences would see, a wide, panoramic view of the action.  There’s the carousing and revelries of the citizens of Rome (that might not be consensual given the look on the woman’s face in the bottom left hand corner).  There’s the sight of three tigers all leaping at Demetrius in the arena (with the Coliseum and another gladiator highlighted behind them), and in the bottom right hand corner the figure of Peter (played by Michael Rennie) clasping the robe that will be passed to Demetrius.  And almost taking centre stage, Demetrius and Messalina (played by Susan Hayward) locked in an embrace that unfortunately makes the titular hero look like a vampire feeding off his latest victim.

With the movie’s villain, Caligula, relegated to the far background of the Romans and their debauchery, the poster encapsulates several of the movie’s main highlights but saves room for its most important attributes.  These are the technical advancement (and miracle) of CinemaScope, along with the innovation that is “high-fidelity directional-stereophonic sound” (not forgetting the movie’s having been filmed in Technicolor as well).  Leaving no room for its cast or director (at the very least), the poster makes no effort to include anything further than the title and it’s relation to The Robe; it’s as if it expects moviegoers to be aware of who’s in it etc. already.

Making a virtue of promoting the movie’s spectacle, this poster for Demetrius and the Gladiators is a visual treat, drawing the eye here and there, and stripping back the usual cast and crew information in favour of those arresting images.  It’s a bold move, but one that pays off handsomely.

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

Lucy (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Lucy

D: Luc Besson / 89m

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Pilou Asbæk, Analeigh Tipton

In Taiwan, Lucy (Johansson) is coerced by her week-long boyfriend, Richard (Asbæk) into delivering a mysterious briefcase to a man called Mr Jang (Choi) at his hotel.  While she waits in reception, she sees Richard killed outside, and then finds herself grabbed and brought to Jang’s room.  The briefcase is opened to reveal four bags of a blue substance.  The substance is tested on a drug addict who is then shot dead by Jang.  He then offers Lucy a job; she refuses and is knocked unconscious.  When she comes to, she finds she’s been operated on.  She’s taken to a room where there are three men who are in the same situation as she is.  Jang’s plan is explained to them: each has a bag of the blue substance inside them.  They will travel to various European destinations where the bags will be removed and they will be paid for their trouble.

Lucy is taken to a cell where she is chained to a wall.  She antagonises one of her captors and he kicks her repeatedly in the stomach, causing the bag inside her to split and release the blue substance into her body.  When another of her captors returns, she overpowers him and escapes; she is shot in the process but is able to remove the bullet without feeling any pain.  She goes to a nearby hospital where she forces a surgeon to remove the bag inside her.  When she tells him it’s something called CPH4, he tells her that it’s something produced by pregnant women at around six weeks that provides nutrients for a foetus.  He also tells her that she’s lucky to be alive with that much CPH4 having leaked into her.

Lucy returns to Jang’s hotel room where she learns the destinations of the three men. She then visits a friend, Caroline (Tipton), and uses her laptop in order to find out about brain function.  She learns about the research of Professor Samuel Norman (Freeman), and with her new abilities allowing her to manipulate electronic systems, contacts him via the television in his hotel room in Paris.  She tells him what she’s able to do and how her brain function is increasing in leaps and bounds, and that she’ll be there to see him in person in twelve hours.  At the airport she contacts French police officer Pierre Del Rio (Waked) and tells him about the drug mules, and convinces him to have them picked up when they land in Rome, Berlin and Paris respectively.

In Paris, and with the drug mules all in French police custody, they are taken to a hospital to have the bags removed.  Jang’s men arrive and grab the bags but Lucy incapacitates them and steals them back.  She and Del Rio head for the university where Norman has assembled some of his colleagues.  Jang and his men follow them and while a pitched battle breaks out in the university between the police and Jang’s men, Lucy ingests a synthesised version of the CPH4 that sees her take the next step in what has become, for Lucy at least, her evolution.

Lucy - scene

At the end of Lucy, French policeman Del Rio asks perpetually puzzled Professor Norman, “where is she?”  The answer is displayed on his mobile phone – viewers will have already guessed the answer – but it’s indicative of the movie’s less than well thought out idea about brain function that it effectively challenges not only our notions of evolution but of God as well.  If Lucy’s use of one hundred per cent of her brain means she no longer exists in human form but continues to live on some other plane of existence, then Besson (directing his own script) seems to be saying we all have the potential to be omnipotent and all-seeing.  If he is, then it means Lucy is perhaps the most philosophical and metaphysical action movie ever created.

However, while Besson is clearly a moviemaker who likes to have fun with his audiences, Lucy is not one of his better efforts, ending up as a ragbag of ideas that doesn’t make any coherent (or cohesive) sense and which often gives the impression that, like Brian in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, “He’s making it up as he goes along”.  As Lucy’s brain function expands towards one hundred per cent, she has a variety of experiences that apparently come and go, or can be turned on and off at will (and with very little effort).  These experiences also happen independently of one another, as if Besson had a tick list of cool effects he wanted to use at each stage of Lucy’s “development” (on the plane to Paris, Lucy begins to disintegrate, but the reason for this is never satisfactorily explained – but, again, it looks cool).  With this “anything goes” approach it’s to Besson’s credit that Lucy becomes less and less of an action heroine as the movie progresses, content in its later stages to just incapacitate Jang’s men and to leave the shootouts and the bloodshed to the French police.

It’s this undermining of accepted action movie devices that adds a level of originality and cleverness to proceedings – witness the car chase sequence where Lucy, driving for the first time, is merely in a hurry to get to the hospital and is unconcerned about the police cars that are trying to stop her; she’s not even trying to outrun them – but the movie’s best moment by far is perhaps it’s quietest, Lucy talking to her mother on the phone and trying to explain how she can feel things like the heat leaving her body before saying goodbye to her for the last time.  Johansson is hypnotic in this scene, and she’s equally good throughout, her questing gaze hinting at secrets that only she can see; it’s hard now to think of another actress in the role.

The rest of the cast are reduced to virtual walk-ons in Besson’s version of The Lucy Show.  Freeman essays another of his bemused expert roles but to even lesser effect than usual, while Choi (still refusing to learn English for a role) plays the urbane gangster Jang with a great deal of muted style.  Waked is little more than a bystander, and Rhind-Tutt comes in for one scene to explain Jang’s dastardly plot before disappearing back from whence he came.

On the whole, Lucy feels like an experiment in cinematic form that was forced to conform to the demands of mainstream movie-making, and as such, falls between the two disciplines.  It’s a shame, because if it had had a more judiciously constructed script, Lucy could have been 2014’s most adventurous and challenging action movie.

Rating: 5/10 – with far more intriguing ideas and concepts about the meaning of existence than it knows what to do with, Lucy is too uneven to be completely effective; but as an action movie with a mind-bending twist, Besson should be applauded for at least trying to be different.

The Trials of Cate McCall (2013)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Trials of Cate McCall, The

D: Karen Moncrieff / 89m

Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Nick Nolte, James Cromwell, Mark Pellegrino, Anna Anissimova, Taye Diggs, Kathy Baker, Clancy Brown, Brendan Sexton III, David Lyons, Ava Kolker, Isaiah Washington, Dale Dickey, Amanda Aday

Cate McCall (Beckinsale) has her fair share of problems.  Despite being a talented lawyer, she has a serious drink problem that has resulted in her being put on probation and assigned to work in a small law office.  She’s also trying to retain custody of her daughter Augie (Kolker) following the break up of her marriage to Josh (Lyons).  As she fights to regain control of her life, Cate is assigned an appeal case involving Lacey Stubbs (Anissimova).  Lacey has been convicted of murder, but claims she was set up by the lead detective on the case, Welch (Pellegrino).  She also alleges that, while in prison, she was raped by a guard.

With the help of her mentor, Bridges (Nolte), Cate begins to look into the case and finds quickly that some of the witness testimonies don’t match up, and that there are problems with the police evidence.  Lacey maintains her innocence, while Welch proves evasive and aggressive when Cate talks to him.  As Cate begins to suspect a miscarriage of justice has taken place, the pressure of trying to deal with both the case and spending time with Augie begins to affect her ability to maintain her sobriety.

The appeal hearing sees Lacey’s case upheld, but Cate’s success is short-lived.  No sooner is the hearing over than she begins to uncover further evidence that Lacey has been lying all along.  But can she trust this new evidence?  Now Cate has to find out whether or not she was used by Lacey, and in the process, decide if being a part of Augie’s life is appropriate for her daughter while she still has a drink problem.

Trials of Cate McCall, The - scene

From the outset, The Trials of Cate McCall tries hard to be different from all the other courtroom-based dramas out there, and in terms of its title character, it certainly succeeds.  Cate McCall is, frankly, a bit of a mess, and while the reason for her drinking problem is adequately explained, the movie’s determination to make things difficult for her at almost every turn borders on the sadistic.  It’s only within the confines of the courtroom that she’s allowed to hold it together and have any success; outside, and she makes mistake after mistake, sometimes deliberately.  There is an element of masochism as well in these moments, as if Cate is punishing herself, and while on a psychological level this is all completely understandable, it makes for a somewhat frustrating viewing experience.  It’s not long into the movie before the viewer will be wondering, just how much more can this character take before she puts her head in the oven?

But Cate’s work keeps her going, even while she screws up everything else in her life.  The two worlds she inhabits, her professional and private lives, are addressed with equal gravitas, and thanks to Beckinsale’s committed, earnest portrayal, the movie is on solid ground when Cate tries to deal with the responsibilities of both (even if she fails more often than not).  It’s an unselfish performance from Beckinsale, an actress who can do a lot more than wear tight-fitting black leather and make fangs look sexy, and she’s at her best when the script piles on the setbacks (she even ends up in jail at one point, that’s how bad things get for her).  Beckinsale is also clever enough to ensure that Cate isn’t entirely sympathetic, and this helps make the character more credible.

She’s ably supported by the likes of Nolte (grizzled, understanding), Cromwell (sanguine, duplicitous), Anissimova (nervy, put-upon), and Pellegrino (arrogant, shady), and there’s a winning performance from six year old Kolker as Cate’s troubled daughter (Augie though – really?).  With such a good cast – and one that can find room for actors such as Brown and Baker in minor roles – the movie’s mix of domestic drama and courtroom machinations is handled well by writer/director Moncrieff, even if there are moments where plausibility is stretched so thin it’s practically see-through (the prosecution’s withholding of exculpatory evidence is a case in point; the ease with which Cate and Welch bury their differences is another).

But all in all, the movie is a worthwhile watch though it plays flat through certain stretches – the repetitive bickering between Cate and Josh, the subplot involving Cromwell’s lecherous judge – and the issue of Lacey’s guilt can be guessed from the beginning, but away from the courtroom there’s enough to keep an audience engaged and wanting to find out what happens next.  Ultimately though, and aside from the reliability of its cast, the material isn’t solid enough to withstand close scrutiny (or cross-examination), and while it’s entirely respectable in its aims and intentions, it doesn’t quite hit the mark.

Rating: 6/10 – with alcoholism, murder and a custody battle occupying the time of its main character, The Trials of Cate McCall is actually less intriguing than it thinks it is; Beckinsale is the movie’s major asset, and while there’s nothing to suggest this might be the beginning of a series, another visit with Cate could still be something to look forward to.

Zatoichi the Fugitive (1963)

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

Zatoichi the Fugitive

Original title: Zatôichi kyôjô-tabi

D: Tokuzô Tanaka / 86m

Cast: Shintarô Katsu, Miwa Takada, Masayo Banri, Jun’ichirô Narita, Tôru Abe, Jutarô Hojo, Sachiko Murase

Zatoichi (Katsu) is travelling alone in the countryside when he reaches a town where a sumo challenge is taking place.  Having won the challenge, the blind masseur is relaxing by a river when he is attacked by a lone yakuza.  Zatoichi defends himself, and as the yakuza lies dying from his wounds, he tells Zatoichi he only attacked him for his mother’s sake.  Zatoichi learns the man’s name and out of duty to him, learns where she lives and offers her his apologies.  The man’s mother, Maki (Murase), forgives him, but as Zatoichi leaves he’s stopped by the man’s clan boss, Yagiri (Abe), who demands his life in return.  But before any more blood can be spilt, Maki and the boss of another clan, Sakichi (Narita) intervene.  Sakichi takes on the responsibility for taking Zatoichi’s life, sparing him until the end of the festival that is taking place.

Zatoichi decides to rest at a local inn.  He is tended by Onobu (Takada), who is in love with Sakichi, though her father is against any match.  Also staying at the inn is a drunken ronin, Tanakura (Hojo) and his wife.  Zatoichi is surprised to find that she is Otane (Banri), the woman he was in love with.  As he begins to deal with the emotions this brings up, Zatoichi becomes aware of a plot involving Yagiri and the innkeeper to take over Sakichi’s territory; Tanakura is there to aid them.  With the festival drawing to a close, Yagiri tries to engineer matters so that Sakichi has to confront Zatoichi, but the young boss is too much of a coward to actually do so.  A fight between Zatoichi and some of Yagiri’s men leads to a final showdown between the masseur and Tanakura, and a tragic outcome.

Zatoichi the Fugitive - scene

The fourth in the series, Zatoichi the Fugitive is a slightly misleading title in that Zatoichi isn’t on the run, and everyone knows exactly where he is throughout.  What isn’t in any doubt, though, is that this instalment of the Zatoichi saga is just as well realised and absorbing as the previous entries.

The basic template is also firmly in place.  Zatoichi arrives in a small town, there’s bitter rivalry between two yakuza gangs, an innkeeper’s daughter may or may not provide a romantic interlude for our hero, various swordsmen will try their luck singly or in groups to kill Zatocihi, domestic intrigues will come to the fore, betrayal and treachery will occur as naturally as the characters breathe, and there is an eventual showdown between Zatoichi and an equally proficient samurai.  It’s all very familiar but it’s all so well executed that it’s almost comforting to watch.

While the sword fights are, on the surface, the main reason to watch a Zatoichi movie, it’s the drama that sets up these encounters that makes all the difference, and prove why the series is so effective four movies in (and with twenty-one still to come).  The script by Seiji Hoshikawa retains Zatoichi’s sense of honour and his deep sense of regret when he’s forced to kill someone, Katsu’s troubled looks and humble demeanour perfectly encapsulating the profound respect he has for (most of) those around him.  Here we see a little more of his anger than before, and directed at more than just the main villain, Yagiri.  With the character’s stoic nature already established, to see him more emotionally invested in his swordplay makes for an interesting broadening of the character and his humanity.  And, for the first time, we see how physically vulnerable he can be when Tanakura manages to wound him (though not too seriously, of course).

Zatoichi’s interplay with Onobu and Otane are given roughly equal screen time, and the distinction between them is made clear by their feelings about their own lives.  Onobu wishes to be with Sakichi and sees happiness for them both, while Otane regrets the future she’s already chosen.  Both actresses give impressive performances, though it’s Banri (playing Otane for the third time) who demands the most attention, her sorrow and despair at the way Otane’s life has turned out etched on her face like a mask she can’t remove.

With so much going on beneath the surface of all the characters, returning director Tanaka’s confident approach pays dividends throughout, and the movie looks glorious thanks to the vibrant colours of the Japanese countryside which are often stunning to look at.  The sword fights are the most exhilarating yet, and there’s a very clever display of Zatoichi’s “sword drawing” skills.  With a quietly emotive score by Akira Ifukube that complements the mounting tension, this entry in the long-running series is as effective and commanding as its predecessors (and how many Part Fours can say that?).

Rating: 9/10 – another superb entry in the series, Zatoichi the Fugitive ups the emotional content and has a gripping denouement that resonates long after the movie sees Zatoichi moving on; with Katsu giving yet another flawless performance, this is better than anyone – perhaps even production company Daiei – could hope for.

The Boxtrolls (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Boxtrolls, The

D: Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable / 97m

Cast: Ben Kingsley, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Elle Fanning, Jared Harris, Toni Collette, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, Dee Bradley Baker, Steve Blum, Simon Pegg

In the town of Cheesebridge, there is a clear hierarchy in place: there is the Establishment, as represented by Lord Portley-Rind (Harris), who wear white hats as a sign of their social standing and influence; there are the common folk who are poorer by default; and then there are the Boxtrolls, cave-dwelling scavengers who avoid human contact as much as possible.  The Boxtrolls are a curious breed who wear cardboard boxes they can retreat into like tortoises when danger arises, and who have a strange language all their own.  They are feared by the human population of Cheesebridge, and are being hunted down by Archibald Snatcher (Kingsley).  Snatcher’s plan is to rid the town of the Boxtrolls and by doing so, rise up from his humble beginnings and claim a white hat; he has an agreement to this end with Lord Portley-Rind.

Amongst the Boxtrolls is the unexpected presence of a young boy known as Eggs (Wright), who has been raised by them since he was a baby.  Eggs knows both English and the Boxtroll language, and ventures out with them at night to search for scrap they can salvage and turn into something more useful.  While on one such trip, Eggs meets Lord Portley-Rind’s daughter Winnie (Fanning), and her astonishment at seeing him with the Boxtrolls leads her to question why Snatcher is hunting them down.  But with her father unwilling to listen to her, Winnie teams up with Eggs and the Boxtrolls in order to show the people of Cheesebridge that their suspicions and fears about the little creatures are unfounded, and that Snatcher is up to no good.

Snatcher, however, is one step ahead of them.  He devises a machine that threatens both the Boxtrolls’ underground home, as well as Lord Portley-Rind.  Meanwhile, Eggs learns that he’s not a boxtroll and that he’s a child who has long been thought of as disappeared.  While he and Winnie piece together his past – and Snatcher’s part in it – at a prestigious gala, Snatcher steps up his nefarious plan by using his machine to intimidate Lord Portley-Rind into giving him a White Hat.  Only Eggs, Winnie and the Boxtrolls can stop him…

Boxtrolls, The - scene

The latest from Laika Entertainment – they also made Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012) – The Boxtrolls is an adaptation of Alan Snow’s Here Be Monsters!  It’s in keeping with their usual visual approach, an arresting mix of stop-motion animation augmented by CGI and traditional hand-drawn artwork, creating an endlessly fascinating and detailed Victorian-era steampunk aesthetic that keeps the eye transfixed throughout and is uniquely ravishing beneath the surface grime.

It may be a dark, ostensibly moody looking movie, but thanks to Irena Brignull and Adam Pava’s clever adaptation – and once the potentially difficult set up of the Boxtrolls’ world is established – the movie reveals a heart and soul that makes it a joy to follow along with, making its cardboard box-wearing stars immediately likeable and endearing.  The Boxtrolls themselves are a lot like a gaggle of unruly schoolchildren, their childlike wonder at the world around them giving them a naiveté that suits their characters and personalities.  Their quirky habits and foibles are rendered with charm and compassion, even when they’re busy playing pranks on each other.  With their innate sensitivity and goodness brought to the fore from the outset, it’s left to the scheming Archibald Snatcher to provide the villainy, and he’s a suitably impressive creation, dextrously voiced by Kingsley, and looking like he’s stepped straight out of one of Dickens’ workhouses.  He’s a gloriously hissable bad guy, and every time his face leers forward it’s like an assault.

Snatcher’s aided by a trio of equally grotesque associates, Mr Trout (Frost), Mr Pickles (Ayoade), and Mr Gristle (Morgan), and as sidekicks they provide some of the more knowing, self-aware humour (watch out for a wonderful pre-end credits piece of post-modernist deconstruction – really).  As the battling youngsters, Eggs and Winnie, both Wright and Fanning offer winning performances, while Harris is instantly recognisable as the straight-laced, luxuriously whiskered Portley-Rind (though viewers may have trouble recognising Collette as his wife).

There’s so much to enjoy in The Boxtrolls it’s almost a struggle to keep up with each new development or piece of background whimsy (like a lot of densely detailed animated features, the movie benefits from repeat viewings), and there are finely tuned moments of anarchic fun in amongst the more darker elements, but thanks to the combined efforts of co-directors Stacchi and Annable the movie achieves a balance that keeps it from tipping over too far in one direction.  From its often remarkable production design courtesy of Paul Lasaine, allied with Curt Enderle’s inspired art direction, the movie looks and feels like a world that’s truly lived in.  The story is involving, and if it all ends a little too predictably, it’s no bad thing.

Rating: 8/10 – another triumph for the folks at Laika, The Boxtrolls is irresistibly charming; exploring further the themes of abandonment and belonging that suffused Coraline and ParaNorman, this is animation that rewards on so many levels it’s almost embarrassing.

Kristy (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Kristy

D: Olly Blackburn / 86m

Cast: Haley Bennett, Ashley Greene, Lucas Till, James Ransone, Chris Coy, Mike Seal, Lucius Falick, Mathew St Patrick, Erica Ash

Justine (Bennett) is a slightly nerdy college student who’s planning to spend Thanksgiving on campus as she can’t afford to get home for the holiday.  Her boyfriend, Aaron (Till), tries to persuade her to come with him to stay with his family but she won’t accept his kindness.  With only her friend, Nicole (Ash) and campus security guard Wayne (St Patrick) for company, Justine is looking forward to spending some time (largely) by herself.  However, Nicole heads home too, leaving Justine (nearly) all alone.

When she goes out to get some supplies at a local gas station, she encounters a young woman (Greene) whose strange attitude and challenging manner Justine attempts to placate in order to avoid an ugly encounter with the gas station attendant.  With her offer rebuffed, Justine voices her disappointment at not being able to just help someone.  The young woman rounds on her and tells her she’s the “Kristy”.  Later, on her way back to the campus, the young woman uses her car to block Justine’s, but Justine gets past her.  She tells Wayne what’s happened and although he’s sure nothing worse will happen, Justine isn’t so sure.

It isn’t long before she’s proven right.  The young woman appears in her room carrying  a knife.  Justine gets past her but soon learns the young woman isn’t alone: she has three male accomplices, all wearing tin foil masks and hoodies, and all carrying weapons.  A game of cat and mouse begins between Justine and the intruders.  Wayne is murdered and Justine is forced to run from building to building in an attempt to avoid being killed as well.  Even when she seeks help from the campus maintenance man, Scott (Ransone), who has a shotgun, the intruders outsmart him and Justine is left to fend for herself once again.  She must use every ounce of ingenuity she has to outwit the intruders and stay alive…

RANDOM

With its mix of Halloween (1978), The Shining (1980) and every school-based slasher movie ever released, Kristy could be accused of being derivative and unimaginative.  But in the hands of director Blackburn and writer Anthony Jaswinski, the movie is strong on atmosphere, as tense as barbed wire, and features some sterling, predatory camerawork thanks to DoP Crille Forsberg.  It’s an impressively mounted picture as well, the university environs – in particular, the swimming pool – put to very good use, the wide open spaces of the grounds proving just as claustrophobic as the interiors, Justine’s attempts at hiding or escape placed against a pitiless, unremarkable background of beiges and off-whites.

It’s a very measured, well-constructed mise-en-scene that benefits from Blackburn’s close attention to detail, validating his decision to combine tightly framed shots with wider, equally threatening compositions that add immeasurably to the sense of unease the movie displays from the first moment an overhead light begins to flicker in the dorm’s laundry room.  But while there’s a sure hand behind the camera, in front of it there’s a commanding performance from Bennett, her slightly geeky, girl-next-door looks and demeanour explored with effortless simplicity in the opening twenty minutes, from her interaction with Aaron to a deceptively effective montage of her activities once everyone’s left.  Justine is instantly likeable, the kind of young woman who makes you smile from the off.  Bennett invests her with a goofy charm, and while she spends the middle third running from the intruders, once Justine decides to take the hunt to them instead, she applies a calculating side of her character that comes across as entirely natural (it’s less the worm turning, more the worm realising she’s actually more than a match for her tormentors).

As the unreasoning, psychotic leader of a cell that’s part of a wider, Internet-based cult, Greene is hidden for the most part under a pink-tinged hoodie, only her facial piercings and chapped lips allowed any prominence.  She gives an angry, embittered performance, her coiled physicality threatening to erupt at any moment, making her the most unpredictable character of all; you watch her to see just what she’ll do next.  As her homicidal accomplices, Messrs Coy, Seal and Falick are hidden behind their masks but their presences are felt even when they’re off screen (Kristy is one of those movies where the viewer can’t quite be sure that one or more of them won’t just pop into view when it’s least expected).

There is violence throughout, from an opening montage of video clips of the cell’s other victims (which are posted on the Internet for other cult members to “enjoy”), to the outcome of Justine’s showdown with the young woman, but there is very little actual bloodshed, and Blackburn wisely avoids the kind of brutality that would have taken Kristy down the torture-porn route.  Instead, and aside from one crowd-pleasing contact blow that is entirely justified, each kill is rendered out-of-shot and with an emphasis on good old-fashioned sound effects.  In fact, the sound mix is one of the most effective aspects of the movie (take a bow, Michael B. Koff), particularly when the intruders are stalking Justine through the kitchens, their knives and weapons scraping against the fixtures and walls with hideous potency.

As mentioned above, the movie is indebted to several other horror outings, and while there will be those who won’t see beyond those influences, and will see deliberate moments taken from those movies – the fate of one character is lifted wholesale from Kubrick’s masterpiece – any naysayers will be missing the efficiency and verve that Blackburn et al. have employed to make these staple ingredients appear fresh and invigorated.  It’s very difficult these days to come up with something new in the horror arena, and while the thriller elements are pushed to the fore here, this variation on the home invasion sub-genre is refreshingly presented and, one unnecessary post-end credits sequence aside, belies its derivative nature to provide a riveting viewing experience.

Rating: 8/10 – unnerving, gripping and rewarding in equal measure, Kristy is a step up from other movies of a similar nature, and treats its audience accordingly; with clear intelligence at work both behind and in front of the camera this is one horror/thriller that really does deserve a wider audience.

Eraser (1996)

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

Eraser

D: Charles Russell / 115m

Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Caan, Vanessa Williams, James Coburn, Robert Pastorelli, James Cromwell, Danny Nucci, Andy Romano, Nick Chinlund

John Kruger (Schwarzenegger) is a US Marshal who works for the Witness Protection programme; he “erases” people’s identities, sets them up in their new lives, and then makes sure they remain safe.  Lee Cullen (Williams) is an employee of the Cyrez Corporation, a weapons manufacturer that she suspects is selling arms to foreign terrorists.  She gains evidence of this as part of an FBI undercover operation, but the plan goes wrong and Cyrez learns of Lee’s involvement.  When killers are sent to her home, it’s Kruger who saves her.

Setting her up in a safe house until she can testify at an upcoming hearing into Cyrez’s business affairs, Kruger is approached by fellow Marshal Robert Deguerin (Caan) who tells him that witnesses in the programme are being killed; Deguerin wants his help in finding the mole who’s leaking the names.  They travel to one of Deguerin’s witnesses but unbeknownst to Kruger it’s a set up: Deguerin is the mole and he’s using the trip as a way of bringing Lee out into the open (he’s also working for Cyrez).  Kruger alerts Lee and she leaves the safe house, having previously agreed to meet Kruger at the New York Zoo.  Escaping Deguerin’s clutches, Kruger meets up with Lee and together they manage to evade Deguerin and his team.

With the information that will expose Cyrez copied to a disc, the only way Kruger and Lee can get a step ahead of everyone else is to learn what’s on the disc, but it’s heavily encrypted and the only way they can read it is to break into Cyrez’ headquarters and use one of the computer terminals.  Aided by one of Kruger’s witnesses, Johnny Casteleone (Pastorelli), they break in and discover that an arms shipment is being loaded onto a ship at the Baltimore docks that night.  They’re discovered, and as they try to escape, Lee is captured by Deguerin.  With Johnny’s help, it’s down to Kruger to stop the shipment and save Lee in the process.

Eraser - scene

One of Arnie’s later action forays, Eraser still looks good for the most part, even if it does have that Eighties vibe that is looked upon nostalgically at the moment (and which isn’t bad for a movie made in 1996).  Looking back at the movie after nearly twenty years it does have its faults – a complete disregard for logic or the laws of physics to name but two – but it also plays it seriously (Arnie’s one liners aside), letting the absurdity of the whole situation unfold with grim determination, as if by doing so the audience won’t dissolve into tears of laughter at every risible plot development (case in point: when Kruger and Lee break into Cyrez, we’re told they can only access the disk from one secured room… except they do it from an office terminal instead… which hasn’t occurred to anyone at Cyrez).  It’s this decision to play it straight that in the end allows the movie to hold up as well as it does.

Schwarzenegger glares a lot as befits a character who trusts no one (until he needs their help – so much for an elite operative who always works alone), and he strides through the movie like the enduring colossus he’s made out to be, shrugging off injury at every turn and allowing nothing to stand in his way.  It’s a commanding performance, the kind that subsequent action stars are still trying to emulate, and he carries it off with confidence and brash fearlessness.  Kruger is a throwback to the type of character Schwarzenegger played in the Eighties – Ben Richards in The Running Man (1987), Ivan Danko in Red Heat (1988) – taciturn, pitiless and single-minded.  It’s the kind of role that’s well-suited to Schwarzenegger’s abilities: short on dialogue, long on shooting people and blowing things up (though it is fun to hear him say “improvisation”, an unexpected gift from the screenwriters).

With the likes of Caan, Coburn and Cromwell providing equally serious-minded support, Eraser benefits enormously from their involvement, though even they have trouble when called upon to utter such glorious lines of dialogue as “We’re way beyond bullshit here” (quite ironic, really) and “Gentlemen, keep your eyes open and your assholes puckered”.  Caan plays Deguerin as a creature of circumstance, an opportunist who doesn’t care who he steps on or kills to get his cut, while Coburn plays the head of the Witness Protection programme as someone who can’t quite believe what’s going on (like the audience).  As Lee, Williams plays her part with brio and wide-eyed disbelief at the corruption going on around her.  She’s the viewer’s connection to the movie, their way in amidst all the mayhem.  She holds her own amongst all the testosterone on display, and is resourceful enough to fend for herself when necessary, making a welcome change from other damsels in distress at the time.

But this being an action movie first and foremost, it stands or falls on its action sequences, and at least here the movie succeeds without need for any further criticism.  There may be more bullets fired than in a small African war, and a higher body count than in same, but each sequence is choreographed to good effect, and Schwarzenegger displays his customary physical dominance in close quarter fighting.  There are plenty of explosions, some impressive stunt work in the final harbour battle, and a sense that not only is bigger better, but that it’s damn well imperative.  Russell orchestrates the various set pieces with a keen eye for casual brutality, and is ably supported by Adam Greenberg’s roving camerawork and Alan Silvestri’s propulsive score.

Rating: 7/10 – with its over-the-top violence bolted onto a script with more holes in it than a string vest, Eraser races along to its explosion-heavy finale with scant regard for the terrible plot it’s trying to outrun; but thanks to some committed performances and Arnie doing exactly what he does best, this is one action movie that – somehow – retains a sense of fun that gives it a much needed boost.

 

Mini-Review: The Inbetweeners 2 (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Inbetweeners 2, The

D: Damon Beesley, Iain Morris / 96m

Cast: Simon Bird, James Buckley, Blake Harrison, Joe Thomas, Emily Berrington, Tamla Kari, Freddie Stroma, Belinda Stewart-Wilson, David Field, Greg Davies, Lydia Rose Bewley

With Jay (Buckley) having gone to live and work in Australia six months before, his friends Will (Bird), Simon (Thomas) and Neil (Harrison) decide to pay him a visit and do some travelling at the same time.  Arriving in Sydney, they find that Jay’s claims of being a top DJ and living in a mansion full of gorgeous, sexually available women is a pack of lies.  When Will bumps into Katie (Berrington), someone he used to know at school, and who seems to be attracted to him, he persuades the rest of the gang to head off to a water park called Splash Planet where Katie will be working.  While they’re there, it emerges that Jay is in Australia to find his old girlfriend, Jane (Bewley).  Meanwhile, Simon is trying to find a way of dumping his psychotic girlfriend, Lucy (Kari), and Neil wants to be a dolphin trainer.  When Jay discovers Jane has moved on, it causes a rift that sees Will stay behind while the others travel into the Outback.

Inbetweeners 2, The - scene

While a sequel to the first movie wasn’t entirely expected, now that it’s here the decision to move the action to Australia appears to have been a good idea, but aside from toning down Jay’s crude, rampant sexism and making him a little more sympathetic, the characters are the same as before, with the same attitudes and problems.  The humour is still as rancorous, and the depiction of women as little more than sex objects is still (unfortunately) in place, while attempts to make winners out of perennial losers leads to mixed results (Jay and Jane, Will and Katie).

Under the guidance of series’ and first movie scriptwriters Beesley and Morris, The Inbetweeners 2 has its moments – Will and one of Neil’s bowel movements is a very funny, very gross standout – but it coasts along for too much of its running time and provides little that’s unexpected or clever.  As sequels go, the change of location is effectively exploited (the stunning locations are beautifully framed and photographed by Ben Wheeler), but the inclusion of secondary characters such as Mr Gilbert (Davies – a series’ favourite) seems forced rather than a natural part of the story.

Rating: 6/10 – one for the fans, who will lap this up, The Inbetweeners 2 ticks all the boxes you’d expect and, to be fair, does so without stopping to apologise once; uneven then and on that level, on a par with the first movie.

Sex Tape (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sex Tape

D: Jake Kasdan / 94m

Cast: Cameron Diaz, Jason Segel, Rob Corddry, Ellie Kemper, Rob Lowe, Nat Faxon, Nancy Lenehan, Giselle Eisenberg, Harrison Holzer, Sebastian Hedges Thomas

When Annie (Diaz) and Jay (Segel) first meet they have sex all the time.  They have sex in different places (sometimes in public), and they try lots of different positions; in short, they can’t get enough of each other.  But then they get married, have a couple of kids and the spark and the spontaneity goes out of their sex life, and they’re reduced to making vague plans around getting together, but their plans never work out.  Jay is continually busy with work, while Annie writes a blog about being a “mommy” that’s about to be picked up by a company, Piper Brothers, that promotes family values.

To celebrate an imminent offer from Piper Brothers, Annie arranges for her mom (Lenehan) to have the kids overnight so that she and Jay can have some “alone” time. Initially raring to go they soon find that getting back to having sex isn’t as easy as they’d thought.  Then Annie suggests they make a sex tape of themselves doing all the positions in The Joy of Sex.  Jay agrees and three hours later, exhausted and done, Annie tells Jay to erase the video.  The next morning, Jay is surprised to receive text messages from someone who says they liked the video.  Jay is horrified to learn that instead of deleting the video from his iPad, instead he’s synched it with all the other iPads he’s used recently and given to friends as a gift when he’s finished with them.

Annie is horrified that their friends – and the mailman – may get to see their sex tape, and tells Jay they have to get the other iPads back.  First they head over to their friends, Robby (Corddry) and Tess (Kemper), and retrieve theirs, but not before they inadvertently reveal why they want it back.  It’s then that Annie realises that she gave an iPad to Hank, the Piper Brothers bigwig who is preparing the offer for her blog.  The four of them go to his house where Annie and Jay go inside; while Annie keeps Hank busy, Jay searches the house for the iPad.  Having done enough for the night, Annie and Jay drop Robby and Tess back at their house, where their son, Howard (Holzer) reveals he sent the texts, and he wants $25,000 or he’ll let the tape be uploaded to the YouPorn website.  Refusing to be blackmailed, Annie and Jay find out where YouPorn has its base, and go there with the intention of damaging the servers and stopping the upload.  But they’re disturbed by the owner while in the act…

Sex Tape - scene

There are several moments in Sex Tape where disbelief has to be suspended so much that it hurts the movie irreparably.  One such moment is when the owner of YouPorn sits down with Annie and Jay and acts as a counsellor to them both, putting aside any issues with their breaking and entering his warehouse and causing damage to his servers as if it was only a minor annoyance (though fortunately they’re not let off the hook entirely – that would have been way too much to swallow).  This scene also slows down the movie and highlights the episodic nature of the script, one that feels like it’s an amalgamation of scenes the filmmakers thought would be funny to see, and which were then included in the nearest screenplay.  Other scenes where this occurs include Robby and Tess on Hank’s doorstep, and an unnecessary final act at a presentation at Annie and Jay’s son’s school.

For a movie with an average running time, this amount of careless padding (as mentioned above) hurts the movie and stops it from being the laugh-a-minute success it could have been.  A lot of Hollywood comedies these days are predictable and play it safe, feeling cool if they throw in a few indie-style gross-out gags for effect, and Sex Tape isn’t any different, but it has two very committed performances from Diaz and Segel, both unafraid to get naked (though not full-frontal) and both unafraid to look silly as they try to reignite the passion that’s deserted Annie and Jay.  The chemistry between them helps as well, and the scene where they sound off at each other for “showing their true colours” in a crisis has all the credibility of a real couple arguing with each other.

But the duo excel when the comedy gets frantic, especially when trying to retrieve Hank’s iPad, and where Jay finds himself traversing the house trying to find it and avoid the deadly intentions of Hank’s alsatian at the same time.  Meanwhile, Annie learns that Hank’s attitude to family values is definitely one that’s left at the office as he persuades her to do some cocaine.  With both of them under duress, how they deal with each dilemma is the highlight of the movie.

There’s adequate support from the rest of the cast, though only Lowe stands out, his role given more attention than the others, and there’s an extended cameo from an actor who’s worked with both Diaz and Segel in the past.  But thanks to the limitations imposed by the script (courtesy of Kate Angelo, Segel and Nicholas Stoller), they do what’s needed and little else.  In the director’s chair, Kasdan orchestrates things comfortably but with very little flair, though the editing by Steve Edwards and Tara Timpone is astute enough to make the movie flow more easily than it might have done otherwise.

All in all, Sex Tape isn’t going to win any awards but it does provide some solid laughs and, now and again, shows a sense of its own absurdity.  Some of the sit-com aspects sit uncomfortably with the more “adult” humour, but there are plenty of laughs to be had in amongst the unfortunate downtimes.

Rating: 6/10 – a little lightweight in too many areas to be fully rewarding, Sex Tape still manages to entertain for the most part, and that’s thanks to its two leads; with a tighter script and less straying from the main plot, this could have been a sure-fire hit.

Poster of the Week – Psycho (1960)

Tags

, , ,

Psycho (1960)

Psycho (1960)

Made for a very specific purpose – as you can see – this has a very interesting design, a spare, unapologetic approach that gets straight to the point, and isn’t interested in frills or embellishments to make it look more attractive.  It is arresting, however, and is possibly one of the most effective pieces of movie advertising ever created.

It also features the only time Alfred Hitchcock appeared in a poster for one of his movies.  This particular version (there were others with the title in green and with slightly different wording) was created for the UK market, and was used to impress upon audiences the notion that Psycho was not to be missed at all, not any part of it.  It’s a brilliant conceit, to admonish prospective audiences before they’ve even seen the movie, but Hitchcock was as shrewd at marketing his movies as he was making them. With viewers almost corralled into seeing the movie, Psycho had a distinct advantage over other movies on release at the time: viewers wouldn’t want to feel left out of seeing it.

The visual effect of the poster can’t be underestimated either.  The appearance of the director, his image outlined in red (almost like a grisly version of a chalk outline) draws the eye first, then the very pointed indicating of his watch, his features almost saying, “You’re going to be late, aren’t you?”  The potential viewer suitably chided, their gaze is drawn to the right and the reason for Hitchcock’s appearance, the warning that is unequivocal and to the point.  And with no exceptions.

The rest is standard stuff, contractually obliged inclusions of the stars’ names, with special mention going to Janet Leigh whose character name is mentioned, giving the impression that she is the star of the movie and that Marion Crane will be the focus of the action (though, as we all know now, not for long).  (Too subtle perhaps, but never underestimate Hitchcock’s ability to manipulate his audiences, both on and off screen.)

A superb example, then, of the way in which an already hotly anticipated movie can be made to appear as an absolute must-see movie.  Simply brilliant.

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

Forgetting the Girl (2012)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Forgetting the Girl

D: Nate Taylor / 85m

Cast: Christopher Denham, Lindsay Beamish, Elizabeth Rice, Paul Sparks, Anna Camp, Phyllis Somerville, Joel de la Fuente, Caitlin Carmichael, Holley Fain

Head shot photographer Kevin Wolfe (Denham) has a small studio from which he runs his business, aided by make up assistant Jamie (Beamish).  Kevin is looking for the right girl to settle down with but he’s socially awkward, quick to assume a “connection” with the women he does date, and unable to deal with the emotional fallout when his mostly short-lived romances come to an end.  In order to deal with the negative feelings he experiences, he has developed a system of forgetting, a way in which he can erase the bad memories of that person from his mind.

Kevin is also trying to deal with the memory of the death of his sister, Nicole (Carmichael) as a young child.  He feels responsible as he was there when it happened but he can’t fully remember all the details.  He asks his grandmother (Somerville) about it but she’s as haunted by the event as he is, and resists his enquiries, leaving him to deal with this childhood trauma as best he can.  When Kevin asks out Adrienne (Camp), a client, his surprise at her agreeing to see him causes him – as usual – to make more of the relationship than is actually the case and he quickly ruins things between them.  He tries to make amends but Adrienne tells him in no uncertain terms that they can’t be a couple.

Kevin tries to forget Adrienne but some time later he receives a visit from her sister, Denise (Fain).  Adrienne is missing, and Kevin is one of the last people to have seen her.  Kevin is unable to help and throws himself into his work in an effort to further erase Adrienne from his memory.  One of his clients, Beth (Rice) agrees to go out with him.  They go to the theatre and later Beth invites Kevin into her apartment for a nightcap.  He tries to force himself on her, believing again that they have a “special connection”.  Beth is frightened and pushes him away; Kevin leaves, thinking he’s ruined everything.

Through all this, Jamie has been struggling with her feelings for Kevin, and her sense of self-worth which is pushing her toward suicide.  One night, she takes the plunge and reveals her feelings to Kevin.  At first he’s receptive, but he still has hopes of getting back with Beth.  Unable to deal with the mixed emotions he’s feeling, Kevin decides to resort to an extreme solution in order to resolve his growing problems.

Forgetting the Girl - scene

Shot and framed as a video diary, Forgetting the Girl is a fairly straightforward thriller tricked out with overt psychological trimmings.  It has that low-budget indie feel that relies on short scenes, mannered performances and sometimes oblique direction.  As an exercise in paranoid psychosis it’s not entirely convincing, but features a handful of facile performances, not the least of which is Denham’s as the eerily blank-faced Kevin, his emotions buried so far behind his eyes you have to wonder if he really feels anything at all.  His speech is often short, clipped almost, as if by saying too much he’ll lay himself open to people in ways he won’t be able to control (and yet he wants to be “normal”, to have that everyday interaction everyone else has).

With such a tightly-wound character as its focus, the movie only rarely strays away from Kevin, focusing more and more on Jamie only as the movie progresses towards its tragic conclusion (and as a necessity).  This broadening of the story is at odds with Kevin’s video diary confession – how can he know even half of what’s been happening with her? – but provides a much needed contrast from Kevin’s subdued susceptibilities.  They’re a couple waiting to implode together, and Peter Moore Smith’s screenplay, based on his own story, has a dreadful fascination about it as these two damaged individuals use each other to achieve (temporary) happiness.

Forgetting the Girl works well as an examination of one man’s attempt to control the emotional content of his life, but in true indie style, it pays little attention to the standard thriller elements that it presents, opting to downplay these elements in favour of more exacting expressions of personal angst.  It’s not until the final twenty minutes that the introspection and clever insights give way in favour of a denouement that demands a final twist (that, sadly, doesn’t come).  Adrienne’s disappearance is used to point suspicion at secondary character Tanner (Sparks), but this attempt comes across as a little too pat, and long-time thriller fans won’t be fooled at all.  And the truth about what happened to Nicole, though left unrevealed until late on, is a little too predictable to provide the resonance that’s needed later on.

Denham captures Kevin’s slow-burn detachment with precision, offering a performance that is by turns creepy and sympathetic.  As the desperately lonely Jamie, Beamish uses her character’s punk clothing and make up to point up the emotional defences she uses to stop herself from being hurt, and the supporting cast flesh out their characters appropriately.  But, ultimately, this is Denham’s movie from start to finish, ably encouraged and directed by Taylor, and at times, frighteningly realistic in his attempts to prove he can “connect”, when in truth he never will.

Rating: 7/10 – Denham’s superb central performance anchors the movie and is often unnerving to watch; with an unexpectedly powerful last act redeeming the more pedestrian aspects of the rest of the movie, Forgetting the Girl emerges as a small-scale winner deserving of a wider audience.

 

50 Movies to Look Forward to in 2015 – Part 2

Tags

, ,

Minions - poster

And… we’re back!  Here are the rest of the movies that will (hopefully) make 2015 a bonanza year for going to the movies.  Again, in no particular order…

26) Jurassic World – A long time coming (always a worry), but if the makers have managed to reinvigorate the franchise this could be a welcome addition to the series.  The only problem will be in replicating the “Wow!” factor of the first movie’s convincing mix of CGI and live action dinosaurs (and the script, of course).

27) The Hateful Eight – Quentin Tarantino’s latest venture is a Western by nature but expect the usual florid dialogues, startling camerawork, and as many movie references as one writer/director can cram into one movie.  Oh, and there’s the usual top notch cast as well, including Tarantino favourite Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell and Bruce Dern.

28) The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – The first movie was such a delightful surprise (in that it was so much fun), that reuniting with Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy (plus newcomers Richard Gere and David Strathairn) is something to look forward to.  Plus a gentler movie in amongst all the superhero/action shenanigans of the rest of the year isn’t a bad thing, either.

Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The - scene

29) Avengers: Age of Ultron – And speaking of superhero/action shenanigans, here’s the daddy of them all for 2015, with Marvel once again seeking to dominate the box office and remind DC just how it’s done.  Loud, brash, colourful, funny – this will be all these things and more, and all under the expert guidance of returning writer/director Joss Whedon.

30) Fifty Shades of Grey – Not to be confused with Wallace & Gromit’s 50 Sheds of Grey, E.L. James’ bestseller gets the big screen treatment after failing to land several potential leading men (including Charlie Hunnam) before settling on Jamie Dornan.  Expect glossy, stylised versions of the book’s “romantic interludes”, and very little critical acclaim.

31) The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – Guy Ritchie takes time out from rebranding Sherlock Holmes to do the same for the classic 60’s TV series.  With Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo and Armie Hammer as Ilya Kuryakin, it remains to be seen if this updated version will be as “bromantic” as the Holmes movies, but audiences can expect some whip-smart action scenes and some glamorous settings.

32) Blackhat – Back in the director’s chair for the first time since Public Enemies (2009), Michael Mann’s latest thriller focuses on the hunt for a cybercrime network and is headed up by Chris Hemsworth and Viola Davis.  No doubt there’ll be plenty of stunning visuals, and Mann making crime look both cool and ruinous at the same time.

Blackhat - scene

33) Heart of the Sea – Chris Hemsworth again in the true story, set in 1820, of a whaling ship preyed upon by a sperm whale that leaves the crew stranded thousands of miles from land.  With Ron Howard in the director’s chair, this tale of human endurance has Oscar-worthy written all over it but should be powerful stuff nevertheless.

34) Ant-Man – Marvel take a chance on one of their lesser-known superheroes, and pin their hopes on Peyton Reed to shepherd the movie to completion after the departure of Edgar Wright.  Have they made the right decision?  Maybe, but Marvel do have a knack of choosing their directors wisely, so they may know something we don’t.

35) Insurgent – The sequel to Divergent continues the story of Beatrice as she begins to uncover the conspiracy that governs the world she lives in.  Everyone except for Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn are back on board (so no surprise there), and they’re joined by newbies Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer.  Will this be darker than the first? Let me think…

36) Pixels – The latest from Chris Columbus sees video game players recruited by the military to fend off an invasion of 80’s-era video game characters.  Adam Sandler heads the cast but this looks like it could be a blast if they’ve gotten the tone right.  And besides, any movie where Kevin James plays the President has got to be worth a look.

37) The Good Dinosaur – Pixar return to our screens after a break in 2014 with two movies; this, the second, is a tale about a 70-foot dinosaur that befriends a young boy called Spot.  The departure of director Bob Peterson is as concerning as that of Edgar Wright leaving Ant-Man, but as long as the movie’s heart is in the right place, and the animation is up to Pixar’s usual standard, this will still be pulling in the audiences.

Good Dinosaur, The - scene

38) The Woman in Black: Angel of Death – The first movie showed that shocks and scares added to the right story (Susan Hill’s novel) can make audiences jump over and over (and then come back for more).  Set during World War II, this sequel will hopefully deliver the same balance (though Daniel Radcliffe will be missed).

39) High-Rise – Brit helmer Ben Wheatley returns with an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s cult novel about the residents of a tower block and what happens when their daily lives spiral out of control.  How much of Ballard’s novel remains is still to be seen but if enough of the weirdness is present, this could be one of the year’s most disturbing movies.

40) Untitled Cold War Thriller – The world’s biggest box office star, Tom Hanks, reunites with Steven Spielberg, playing a lawyer recruited by the CIA to rescue a pilot detained in the Soviet Union.  With a script co-written by the Coen brothers, and strong support from the likes of Alan Alda and Amy Ryan, this has class and style written all over it.

41) The Fantastic Four – The casting has caused no end of fan base uproar – Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm anyone? – but director Josh Trank is a great choice to steer this reboot to the screen, and one piece of casting should prove to be inspired: Toby Kebbell as Dr Doom – nuff said.

42) Ted 2 – At present there aren’t any plot details, or signs of a returning Mila Kunis (or Sam Jones for that matter), but Seth MacFarlane’s follow-up to his 2012 original should be high on belly laughs and low on subtlety – just how we like it.

43) Kingsman: The Secret Service – Colin Firth as a super-spy?  Newcomer Taron Egerton as the young tearaway he takes under his wing?  Matthew Vaughn back in the director’s chair after reinvigorating the X-Men franchise?  Samuel L. Jackson as the villainous Valentine?  Is there anything not to like about this movie?

44) Everest – Another great ensemble cast – Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley, Josh Brolin, and John Hawkes to name but a few – add extra drama to the tale of a climbing expedition that runs into trouble thanks to a severe snow storm.  Expect this to be compelling, gruelling and chilling in equal measure.

45) Absolutely Anything – The remaining members of Monty Python reunite (albeit as the voices of extraterrestrials) for Terry Jones’ tale of a teacher who discovers he has magical powers.  Featuring Robin Williams’ final performance (as the voice of Dennis the Dog), this should be laugh out loud funny and suitably poignant at the same time.

Absolutely Anything - scene

46) Igor – Yet another version of Mary Shelley’s classic tale, this focuses more on the relationship between Victor Von Frankenstein (James McAvoy) and his assistant Igor (Daniel Radcliffe).  Originally titled Frankenstein, the name change may turn off some potential viewers but with McAvoy and Radcliffe on board this should be arresting stuff nevertheless.

47) Inside Out – The other (and first) Pixar movie of 2015 is shaping up to be their best since Toy Story 3 (2010).  The tale of a young girl called Riley guided by her emotions – Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness – who all live in the central part of her mind, this has all the hallmarks of classic Pixar.

48) Pan – J.M. Barrie’s much-loved children’s classic gets the origin treatment with Hugh Jackman as Blackbeard, and relative newcomer Levi Miller as the young boy fated to become Peter Pan.  With Joe Wright in the director’s chair this could well be one of the most handsomely mounted movies of the year.

49) Trainwreck – The latest from Judd Apatow is being kept well under wraps at present, but it does feature Daniel Radcliffe, Tilda Swinton and Bill Hader amongst others, so however it turns out, this will still be one to watch.

50) Star Wars Episode VII – It might be okay.  I guess.  Probably.

If I’ve missed any movies you think we should be looking out for in 2015, feel free to let me know.  Happy Viewing!

Before I Go to Sleep (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

J2730_BeforeIGoToSleep_OneSheet_31F.indd

D: Rowan Joffe / 92m

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Anne-Marie Duff, Adam Levy, Dean-Charles Chapman

Christine Lucas (Kidman) wakes up each morning with no knowledge of who she is, and no memory of her life since her early Twenties.  Her husband, Ben (Firth), tells her she was in an accident ten years before and she is suffering from a form of retrograde amnesia: when she goes to sleep each night, her memory of that day is wiped clean and she remembers nothing about her situation.  To help her, Ben has put up pictures of their life together, and has left lists of items and instructions to help her get through the day while he’s at work.

After Ben heads off, the phone rings.  A man at the other end identifies himself as Dr Nasch (Strong).  He tells Christine he’s been treating her for a while and that she should go and look for a camera hidden in a wardrobe in the bedroom.  Nasch has persuaded Christine to use the camera as a kind of video diary, an aide-memoire that she can use each day to help her remember things.  The last entry shows Christine looking visibly upset and cutting the recording short when Ben returns home.

Two weeks before: Dr Nasch begins treating Christine and gives her the camera, advising her not to tell Ben about it.  She begins to make daily recordings, and in the process she learns things that don’t make sense: her accident proves to be a near-fatal assault by an unknown attacker; she and Ben have a dead son; and a friend of hers called Claire (Duff) has been trying to get in contact with her (though Ben tells her he doesn’t recall anyone by that name).  As Christine begins to piece together the mystery of the assault and the past ten years, she begins to suspect that someone, either Ben or Dr Nasch, is hiding the truth from her, and that she may be in danger.

Before I Go to Sleep - scene

Adapted from the novel by S.J. Watson, Before I Go to Sleep is a hard movie to really like.  It’s competently directed by Joffe, ably performed by its cast, and wrong foots the audience on at least two occasions with considerable shrewdness.  But it lacks any real tension, and despite the best efforts of all concerned, has a too-familiar feel to it that robs the movie of any lasting effect.  Christine’s predicament and the limitations of her memory, while intriguing, are too easily overcome; it’s hard to believe that no one’s come up with the idea of a video camera before now.  And for the purposes of the plot, Dr Nasch’s insistence on keeping Ben in the dark, while highly suspicious by itself, seems more of a contrivance than something reasonably developed to aid in Christine’s treatment.

Once Christine begins to unravel the mystery of the assault, the clues come thick and fast, and while the movie as adapted by Joffe may think it’s being very clever, it only succeeds in making it easy for its heroine to learn the truth.  It also loses a large amount of credibility when Christine agrees to meet Claire at Greenwich, but is later revealed to not even know the address of where she lives.  It’s in the mid-section that Joffe trots out a series of twists and turns that threaten to sink the movie’s credibility, but he manages to hold it all together until the arrival of the more generic confrontation that, alas, soon descends from tense showdown to tiresome violent retread.

Later, as the plot begins to unravel further, and the truth about the assault becomes clearer, what has been a fitfully absorbing psychological thriller becomes yet another damsel in distress movie with Christine forced to face off against the man who assaulted her all those years ago.  With such a predictable denouement, the movie adds an extended coda that seeks to give full closure to everything Christine has discovered (it also provides an emotional resonance that’s lacking elsewhere), but while it’s an effective scene in and of itself, it comes too late to save matters overall.

There’s also the issue of the movie’s look.  Joffe, along with director of photography Ben Davis, has chosen to film in muted colours, and with the dimmest lighting design seen for some time.  As a consequence, the movie is drab and depressing to look at, its dour interiors sucking the life out of proceedings and proving an obstacle to the performances, the cast struggling to stand out against the morose and dreary surroundings.  Even when Christine meets Claire at Greenwich, the colour mix is toned down so that the natural greens and browns seem as subdued as the rest of the palette.  As a reflection of Christine’s mental state, it comes across as pretty heavy handed, while also keeping the audience at a distance from the action.

Kidman plays Christine as a fragile, easily disturbed, yet strangely trusting woman who shows only few signs of being the strong, confident person she was before the assault (it’s only her memory that’s affected, not her personality), and while she’s as capable as ever – only Julianne Moore can show dawning, horrified realisation as well as Kidman can – she’s hemmed in by the character’s limitations (even an actress of Kidman’s calibre can do shock and surprise only so many times in a movie without it becoming repetitive).  In support, Firth gets to play angry and resentful in between being supportive and creepy, while Strong does what he can with a character who, ultimately, is there for exposition purposes more than anything else.

There are obvious connections that viewers will associate with Memento (2000), but Before I Go to Sleep lacks that movie’s inventiveness and if they were programmed as a double bill, Joffe’s would definitely be the second feature.  With obvious nods to movies such as Groundhog Day (1993) and Shattered (1991), this tries hard to be a riveting thriller but ends up looking and sounding too mundane to make any lasting impression.

Rating: 5/10 – disappointing and routine for most of its running time, Before I Go to Sleep could have done with more pace and more intensity; with few surprises, and even fewer moments to make an audience gasp, this is one thriller that doesn’t fully live up to expectations.

50 Movies to Look Forward to in 2015 – Part 1

Tags

, ,

Minions - poster

With 2015 fast approaching, here’s the first 25 in a list of 50 movies coming our way next year that may or may not prove to be as successful as we, or they, may hope, but which are certain to have a level of expectancy attached to them.  So, in no particular order…

1) Bond 24 – How the series continues following the death of M (Judi Dench) in Skyfall could mean a whole new world for everyone’s favourite secret agent, but whatever returning director Sam Mendes and screenwriter John Logan have come up with, it’s sure to be a hit at the box office.

2) Cinderella – With Kenneth Branagh in the director’s chair, and a cast that includes Helena Bohnam Carter, Stellan Skarsgård, Derek Jacobi and Cate Blanchett, this fairy tale romance has all the hallmarks of being a lavish reimagining of the classic story.

3) Mad Max: Fury Road – The trailer looks like this long-awaited reboot is one long chase sequence (no bad thing), but with Tom Hardy stepping into Mel Gibson’s boots, and with support from Nicholas Hoult and Charlize Theron, this retread looks suitably gritty and dramatic.

Mad Max Fury Road - scene

4) Kung Fu Panda 3 – Dreamworks’ other ongoing animation franchise (the other features a dragon or two), builds on the groundwork laid in the first two movies and introduces us to Po’s biological father (Bryan Cranston).  Is he villain or hero?  Only Shifu knows…

5) Mortdecai – Johnny Depp?  Nazi treasure?  A character called Jock Strapp?  However this comedy thriller turns out, it won’t be for want of trying, and may well be a pleasant surprise at the start of the year.

6) Terminator: Genisys – As promised, he’s back.  Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to the role that made him an icon, aided and abetted by a great cast including Jason Clarke, Matt Smith and Emilia Clarke.  Who wants to bet if he says, “Come with me if you want to live”?

7) The Jungle Book – A live action version of Kipling’s classic tale, directed by Jon Favreau, and featuring a top-notch voice cast including Scarlett Johansson and Ben Kingsley (not to mention Bill Murray as Baloo), this is intriguing to say the least, but will it have the warmth the animated version has?

8) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 – And so we bid farewell to Katniss Everdeen and her struggle to stay alive against all the odds.  As plucky heroines go, Katniss is up there with the best, but will this final instalment give viewers anything different from what readers of the book are already aware of?

9) Holland, Michigan – The feature film debut of legendary documentarian Errol Morris, this sees the ubiquitous Bryan Cranston and Naomi Watts as a married couple hiding secrets from each other.  But whose secret is more dangerous than the other’s?

10) Regression – A twisty thriller from Alejandro Amenábar (The Others) about a father who’s accused of a crime he has no memory of committing, this has Ethan Hawke and Emma Watson heading up the cast, and could well be a surprise hit with audiences if it gets the right exposure.

Regression - scene

11) Sea of Trees – It could be a case of inspired teaming, but this drama set in Japan’s Aokigahara (suicide forest) unites director Gus Van Sant and star of the moment Matthew McConaughey.  If Van Sant reins in his experimental side, this could be one of the most powerful and moving movies of 2015.

12) London Has Fallen – The sequel to Olympus Has Fallen gets a sappy title but reunites Messrs. Butler, Freeman, Eckhart and Bassett for what will no doubt be another risible but hugely enjoyable action-fest that sees Butler single-handedly saving the day.  It’ll be interesting to see how much of London actually gets trashed, though.

13) In a Valley of Violence – Horror director Ti West broadens his horizons with this revenge Western set in the 1880’s starring Ethan Hawke and John Travolta.  If it’s even half as intense as The Sacrament, then this should be compelling stuff.

14) The Minions – As promised, they’re back, with an origin story that shows how they met Gru (Steve Carell) at a villains convention in the 60’s.  The little yellow guys(?) have a worldwide following, so this should be as successful at the box office as Despicable Me 2 was (but hopefully funnier).

15) Silence – The latest project from Martin Scorsese sees Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver as two Jesuit priests in 17th Century Japan trying to spread the gospel of Christianity against continual persecution.  Oscar may like this a lot, but it may prove a tough sell at the box office.  It’s Scorsese, though, and that could mean something astonishing.

16) Crimson Peak – Guillermo del Toro returns to his horror roots with this tale of a young woman, played by Mia Wasikowska, who discovers her husband is not who he appears to be.  Expect startling visuals and the kind of creeping suspense few others directors pull off so well.

17) Triple Nine – With a great cast including Kate Winslet, Woody Harrelson and Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Hillcoat’s crime drama about a group of corrupt cops forced to carry out an impossible heist looks set to be gritty and compelling, and setting audiences on the edge of their seats.

Triple Nine - scene

18) Magic Mike XXL – The sequel to Magic Mike features a story by Channing Tatum, some returning cast members (but not Matthew McConaughey), and photography and editing chores handled by a certain Steven Soderbergh.  Whether this adds up to a movie that is as fun as its predecessor, only time and some slick dance moves will tell.

19) Entourage – The hit TV series transfers to the big screen with the gang all present and ready to take on Hollywood.  If the movie is as funny as the series, then audiences are in for a treat, but for a shot at real success it needs to bring in enough non-fans to make it soar at the box office.

20) Mission: Impossible 5 – With locations including the Vienna Opera House and London’s Houses of Parliament (never filmed in before), this latest outing for Ethan Hunt and the M:I team has a considerable challenge in trying to top the success of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

21) Fathers and Daughters – A Pulizer Prize winning author played by Russell Crowe struggles to raise his daughter in the wake of his wife’s death, and we see the effects of that on her as an adult (played by Amanda Seyfried).  A more obvious Oscar contender would be hard to find, but Crowe is ideally suited to this type of movie, and he’s supported by the likes of Aaron Paul, Quvenzhané Wallis and Jane Fonda.

22) Untitled Terrence Malick Project – Set against the backdrop of the music scene in Austin, Texas, this has possibly the best ensemble cast of 2015 – Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling and Cate Blanchett to name but a few – and is likely to be one of the most eagerly awaited movies of the year.

23) Jupiter Ascending – Delayed from 2014 (not usually a good sign) the Wachowskis’ latest sci-fi blockbuster features Channing Tatum with pointy ears and genre-bending visuals.  Whether the story is as compelling remains to be seen but any movie by such visionary filmmakers deserves a fair chance.

Jupiter Ascending - scene

24) The Martian – More sci-fi, with Matt Damon’s stranded astronaut forced to improvise a lifestyle that will enable him to survive on the Red Planet until his rescuers arrive.  The book is a page-turner, let’s hope Ridley Scott’s adaptation is the filmic equivalent.

25) Fast & Furious 7 – With Parts 5 & 6 upping the action stakes and the sad loss of Paul Walker in November 2013 pushing back the release date by a year, this latest instalment needs to pull out all the stops.  Vin Diesel is confident it’s the best F&F yet, and with Jason Statham, Kurt Russell and Lucas Black added to the cast (Black reprising his role from The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift), this promises more macho strutting than it seems possible for one movie to cope with.

Movies 26-50 will follow soon.  If you have a movie that you’re looking forward to in 2015, please feel free to let me know.

Blended (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

304053id1c_Blended_Final_Rated_27x40_1Sheet_5C.indd

D: Frank Coraci / 117m

Cast: Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Kevin Nealon, Terry Crews, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Emma Fuhrmann, Bella Thorne, Braxton Beckham, Alyvia Alyn Lind, Joel McHale, Abdoulaye NGom, Kyle Red Silverstein, Zak Henri, Jessica Lowe

Widower Jim (Sandler) and divorcee Lauren (Barrymore) meet on a blind date that goes from bad to worse to disaster and leaves both of them never wanting to see each other again.  The holidays are coming up and both of them are looking to take their kids – Jim has three daughters: teenager Hilary (Thorne), Espn (Fuhrmann), and Lou (Lind), Lauren has two boys: Brendan (Beckham) and Tyler (Silverstein) – away, but neither set of children is looking forward to where they’re going.  When Jim and Lauren bump into each other at the store, their credit cards get mixed up.  Jim realises first and goes to Lauren’s house where Lauren’s friend Jen (McLendon-Covey) is freaking out because her boyfriend, Dick, wanted her to meet his children on a planned trip to Africa.  Having broken up with Dick because of this, the holiday is now available.  Lauren asks Jen if she can go in Jen’s place and take her boys, while Jim discovers Dick is his boss, and he asks Dick to sell the holiday to him.

When they all arrive at the resort in Africa, Jim and Lauren find they’re on a “blended familymoon”, and are surrounded by couples where one of the partners is a step-parent and the idea is to develop stronger ties with their step-children.  They meet Eddy (Nealon) and Ginger (Lowe), and Eddy’s teenage son, Jake (Henri).  Hilary has an instant crush on Jake, but because she looks like a boy she doesn’t think he’ll notice her.  The two families take part in the arranged activities and the children all learn to get on while Jim and Lauren continue to spar and bicker (even though they are clearly starting to like each other).  Lauren arranges for Hilary to have a makeover, and now Jake really does notice her.  With the holiday coming to an end, and with both Jim and Lauren having bonded with each other’s kids, Jim takes Lauren out for a romantic dinner but when they go to kiss, he backs off, unable to commit.

They all return home, and Jim begins to realise his mistake in not kissing Lauren.  He goes to see her but Lauren’s ex-husband, Mark (McHale), answers the door and makes it sound as if he and Lauren are getting back together.  Disheartened, Jim leaves, while Mark tries to persuade Lauren to have him back.  She won’t, but she tells him if he wants to make a good impression with his kids he should turn up for Tyler’s Little League baseball game at the weekend.  But on the day, it’s not Mark who turns up…

Blended - scene

Going by the assumption, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, Blended is the obvious follow-on from Just Go With It (2011), swapping Hawaii for Africa, and Jennifer Aniston’s dental assistant for Drew Barrymore’s divorced closet organiser, but without the added (and unexpected) star power of Nicole Kidman.  It’s a safe move, and an even safer movie, with Sandler injecting just enough of his loud man-child persona, as well as the standard amount of risqué gags, to ensure Blended is a few steps away from the kind of bland family fare that Disney pumps out with frightening regularity.  It almost feels like a movie made by committee, comfortably ticking off the boxes on its way to the expected happy ending: couple who initially detest each other – check; kids with various problems that will be addressed and dealt with by the end – check; supporting characters who provide most of the goofy humour – check; family values firmly reinforced in time-honoured Brady Bunch fashion – check; and so on.

Love him or loathe him, Sandler has a loyal fan base, and his movies regularly make their money back at the box office – just don’t mention the dreadful That’s My Boy (2012) which couldn’t recoup its $70 million budget even with international sales – so he must be doing something right.  As here, he appears to make little effort in terms of acting, and he’s becoming less and less of a physical performer, but he generally makes good choices in terms of the movies he makes, as well as the people he surrounds himself with.  But it’s with movies like Blended that it really springs to mind he’s just coasting until the next, more interesting project (and 2015’s Pixels may just be that project).

With its predictable plotting, tiresome running gags, and by-the-numbers characterisations, Blended could almost be the cure for insomnia, but it does have some good one-liners – “I naturally assumed your husband shot himself” – and the South African locations are suitably impressive, but the direction is too pedestrian for the movie to take off as effectively as Barrymore does in the parascending scene, and the script takes no chances with the material, leaving the audience amused for the most part but with little that’s truly memorable to take away with them.  It’s also a movie with a good deal of padding, its near two-hour running time stretched out largely because of the unnecessary third act set back in the US.

On the performance side, the various child actors are all appropriately adorable, cute, winsome etc., while the adults, Sandler and Barrymore aside, all blend in with the scenery and make little impression.  Unusually, there aren’t the expected cameos from some of Sandler’s off-screen pals, which may have provided a much-needed distraction, but all in all the performances are perfunctory enough and match the spirit of the script and the direction.

Rating: 5/10 – lacklustre and only sporadically entertaining, Blended is Sandler and co. ably treading on water but to no discernible effect; something to pass the time if you need to, otherwise there are other, better Adam Sandler movies you could be watching.

Are You Here (2013)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Are You Here

D: Matthew Weiner / 112m

Cast: Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Poehler, Laura Ramsey, Joel Gretsch, Paul Schulze, Alana De La Garza, Edward Herrmann, Peter Bogdanovich, Jenna Fischer, David Selby

Steve Dallas (Wilson) is a weatherman whose easy-going, free-wheeling lifestyle is tempered by his long-time friendship with Ben Baker (Galifianakis).  Ben lives in a rundown trailer and has effectively turned his back on conventional society, preferring to live away from people and challenging most modern day conventions.  He also lacks certain social skills.  When Ben learns that his father has died, Steve agrees to take Ben back to the small town where they grew up for the funeral and to learn what, if any, inheritance Ben will receive.

To both friends’ surprise, and also Ben’s sister, Terri (Poehler), Ben inherits his father’s house and several acres of surrounding land, and his father’s store.  Terri is horrified, as she feels Ben is unable to deal with the responsibilities involved in running the store, and she’s even more horrified when Ben decides he wants to transfer the house and land over to Steve as a gift for all his years of support and friendship.  With the two siblings at loggerheads, there is also the issue of Angela (Ramsey), the young widow of Ben’s father.  Terri dislikes her (even though she clearly made the old man very happy), but Steve is besotted.  He tries to worm his way into her affections but she’s not easily swayed, and Steve, who usually rehearses his pick-up lines before talking to women, finds he has to rethink his approach.

While Ben and Terri fight over Ben’s plans to use the store as the site for a non-profit organisation, Steve returns to work but not before he asks Angela to keep an eye on Ben.  It’s not long, however, before Ben’s behaviour becomes more erratic, and when Steve returns he has to persuade him to see a counsellor (Herrmann) as Terri has insisted on a competency hearing to rule on Ben’s ability to manage his inheritance.  Steve continues to woo Angela and finds his efforts are beginning to pay off.  When the counsellor advises that Ben would need to take medication in order to meet the requirements of managing the store (however he sees fit), the meds prompt a change in Ben’s outlook.  It also brings Ben and Angela closer together, until one night they end up in bed together.  And then Steve finds out…

Are You Here - scene

Ostensibly a comedy-drama, Are You Here - on paper at least – looks like a shoo-in in terms of quality.  Written and directed by the creator of TV’s Mad Men, with two gifted comic actors headlining, and with a storyline ripe with comedic and dramatic potential, there shouldn’t be any reason why this doesn’t score points across the board.

And yet…

There are several problems here, and all of them serve to hold the movie back.  First and foremost is the relationship between Steve and Ben.  Steve is a shallow ladies man whose over-riding commitment in life is to himself, and he has very little time for the feelings of others; he treats his boss (Schulze) with disdain, and the women he meets as objects.  He’s a really selfish, unlikeable character, and while Wilson invests Steve with a certain amount of sympathy, it’s not enough to make him any more palatable as the movie goes on.  He’s supposed to change and become more self-aware as his relationship with Angela develops but the full extent of his selfishness is revealed when he confronts Ben and Angela over their sleeping together: he acts more like someone who’s had his favourite toy taken away from him than someone who’s truly aggrieved.  With this level of insularity, it’s amazing that he could be as selfless and supportive with Ben as he is.

With the central relationship proving unconvincing, the movie’s attempts at drama prove to be off-key and more than a little underwhelming.  Terri’s animosity towards Angela is trite and lacks any credibility, and her attacks soon become boring and gratuitous.  She’s meant to be the uptight older sister who means well but has a hard time showing it, but thanks to Weiner’s muddled script (and despite Poehler’s valiant efforts), Terri comes across as unnecessarily mean and thoughtless (a subplot involving her attempts to fall pregnant is meant to elicit some sympathy for her but it’s never developed fully enough to be effective).  Conversely, Angela is the wise-despite-her-age opposite of Terri, a loving, caring woman who is more accepting of others, and who seems settled in her own skin.  The problem here is that there’s nowhere for such a character to go to, and even though she’s attracted to Steve, the romance between them is so laid-back it barely registers as anything more than something for the characters to do while Ben gets his act together.

As character arcs go, Ben’s transformation from woolly-thinking anti-consumer to gifted businessman is the movie’s biggest stretch, given insufficient credence by his father’s belief that he “has it in him” to succeed.  It’s also a curious conceit that Ben achieves peace and the ability to properly move forward off the back of some mood altering drugs.  Whatever the message here is, it does make the audience wonder if Weiner is saying that success can be achieved through the use of controlled substances.  If he’s not then it’s just a way of forcing a change for the sake of the script and adding a bright bow tie in wrapping up one of the plot strands.  Galifianakis does his best, but falls back on the kind of comedic schtick we’re used to seeing from movies such as The Hangover (2009) and Due Date (2010).

The comedy elements dominate the first forty-or-so minutes, but are slowly discarded in favour of the rambling, sub-par dramatics of the rest of the movie, leaving the audience to wonder if it’s worth staying on til the end (in the vain hope that things will improve, or at least reach an acceptable conclusion – they don’t).  It’s a shame, because with a tighter, more focused script, this could have been an interesting slice of parochial disillusionment, or had something more pointed to say about consumerism, or presented the viewer with at least one character they could care about.  Instead, and thanks to Weiner’s equally undercooked attempts at direction, the movie gives up almost as soon as Steve and Ben reach their hometown.

Rating: 4/10 – for a movie with this much potential and talent (both behind and in front of the camera), Are You Here struggles to involve its audience, and is unlikely to linger in anyone’s memory for longer than an hour or so; somnolent and unrewarding, the answer to the titular question is likely to be, “Not really”.

Poster of the Week – The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

Tags

, , , , , , ,

Hound of the Baskervilles, The (1959)

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

Another Hammer movie poster – see also Dracula (1958) – this unusually simple piece of advertising (for its time), has an impact that can’t be denied.  With its human cast relegated to the sidelines (literally), the hound is allowed to take centre stage and dominate the poster.  It’s less of a hound and more of a wolf, of course, but its sharp, pointed teeth, tipped with blood, and yellow-eyed stare, is more than enough to put anyone off from wanting to encounter the beast on a lonely, deserted moor.

Its grey and white fur, offset by deep, shadowy blacks, frames the hound’s features to considerable effect, with its canines to the fore, almost as if it’s about to take a chunk out of the title.  The eyes have a demonic gleam to them, and there’s a hypnotic quality to them as well, as if by staring at them for too long there’s a chance the hound will jump out of the poster and rip you to pieces – far-fetched, perhaps, but there is a certain, unnerving element to the image, one that is far more effective on closer inspection.  And then there’s the moon, a grey smudge near the top right corner, hinting at lycanthropy and occupying a place that would otherwise have been completely blank (though no less effective for being so).

The bold red of the title, in its way splashed across the poster, demands attention from the eye, and the colour hints at the bloodshed that is likely to occur in the movie (even if it’s not quite as brutal as we’d like to imagine).  The tag line at the top of the poster tries too hard to grab the attention away from the hound, while the main cast members are sequestered over on the left hand side, almost as an afterthought; even the acknowledgment to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle turns out to be in a smaller typeface  than that advising of the movie’s having been made in Technicolor (as for the director et al., mentioned in the bottom left hand corner, unless you’ve got 20/20 vision, you won’t have a clue who they are).

It’s a simple, effective poster and deserves a wider audience, free from artifice and pseudo-intellectual interpretations: in short, a poster that’s way more compelling than you’d initially give it credit for.

Agree?  Disagree?  Please feel free to let me know.

Scooby-Doo! Frankencreepy (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Scooby-Doo! Frankencreepy

D: Paul McEvoy / 74m

Cast: Frank Welker, Mindy Cohn, Grey DeLisle, Matthew Lillard, Diedrich Bader, Jeff Glen Bennett, Kevin Michael Richardson, Dee Bradley Baker, Corey Burton

A surprise call from the Dinckley family lawyer, Cuthbert Crawley (Richardson), leads the Mystery Inc. gang into another spook-filled adventure when Velma (Cohn) inherits her great-great uncle’s castle in Transylvania, Pennsylvania.  Surprised by the revelation that Velma is related to the infamous Baron Von Dinckenstein (Burton), who was believed to have created a monster (in a similar fashion to Victor Frankenstein), the gang are even more shocked when they leave Crawley’s office and the Mystery Machine is blown up by the ghost of the Baron.  Undeterred by this setback (which has left Fred (Welker) sad and depressed), the gang travel to Transylvania to investigate Velma’s family history and to find out if there really is a curse on the family – and anyone who gets involved – as the Baron’s ghost has predicted.

Once in Transylvania it soon becomes obvious that the townsfolk are deeply suspicious of Velma and her family’s history, and as represented by Inspector Krunch (Richardson) and the mayor, Mr Burger (Baker), they try to warn them off, but aided by Iago (Bennett), a hunchback, they head for the castle where they are welcomed by housekeeper Mrs Vanders (Bader).  While Fred continues to mourn the Mystery Machine’s passing, and Velma attempts to replicate the experiments of the Baron in order to debunk the stories of his creating a monster, Daphne (DeLisle), Shaggy (Lillard) and Scooby (Welker) head into town where a fare is taking place.  There, Shaggy and Scooby win an eating competition that sees them lose their appetites soon after, while Daphne tries on a dress that sees her balloon in size.  They return to the castle to find that Velma has become fanatical about the Baron’s work and is close to reviving the monster that has been kept frozen there since his death.

With the monster reawakened, Shaggy and Scooby reveal a more courageous attitude than they’ve ever displayed previously, Daphne continues to bemoan her change in size, and Fred sinks ever deeper into depression over the loss of his beloved Mystery Machine.  When Daphne encounters the Baron’s ghost in a subterranean tunnel, the mystery deepens, but now Velma has become crazed and sets the monster on the rest of the gang.  Things reach a crisis point when Fred et al. realise that the castle has been built on a huge reserve of natural gas, and the whole place is in danger of exploding at any minute.  Will the gang return to their normal selves?  Will they escape from the castle in time?  Will they unmask the villain behind the Baron’s ghostly appearances?  Will someone call them “meddling kids”?

Scooby-Doo! Frankencreepy - scene

With the series showing no sign of slowing down in terms of releases, the Scooby-Doo franchise also continues to show signs of stretching – if not exactly pushing – the envelope, with perhaps one of the best outings for the gang in recent years.  The previous entry – Scooby-Doo! WrestleMania Mystery (2014) – was pretty underwhelming, but here, and thanks to a very amusing script by James Krieg, this mash up of classic horror tropes and characters proves to be more entertaining than might at first be expected.  The script also tries to do several different things with the characters in an attempt to spice things up: from the changes Daphne undergoes to the unexpected destruction of the Mystery Machine (and which leads to a great running joke involving Fred and how he misses it), Scooby-Doo! Frankencreepy does its best to subvert its audience’s expectations from the outset.  Add in Velma going to the dark side (and getting a sexy makeover in the process), Shaggy and Scooby being brave and fearless, and the inclusion of a priceless fart joke, and you have the makings of one of the series’ best entries yet.

There are plenty of sight gags to be had, and for those with an eagle eye, plenty of clues to the villain’s identity that makes this outing less about working out which of the supporting characters is behind the Baron’s mask, and more about the ways in which the Mystery Inc. team are changed by the “curse”.  It’s fun to see such established characters given a dramatic new lease of life, and while it might be argued that Daphne’s angst at being several sizes larger than she usually is is a little insulting to women who aren’t a size eight or smaller, it’s actually a clever way of reinforcing just how shallow Daphne is as a character (plus Fred doesn’t even realise she looks any different; he loves her no matter how she looks, and isn’t that how it should be?).

Ably directed by McEvoy and replete with unexpected camera angles and some surprising compositions, the movie zips along at a steady pace, and is bolstered by strong performances from its regular cast – Welker remains a standout – and features equally strong support from voice talent stalwarts such as Bennett and Richardson.  The allusions to Universal’s horror movies from the Thirties and Forties helps ground the action – look out for Inspector Krunch, an homage to Inspector Krogh from Son of Frankenstein (1939) – and there’s further fun to be had from Transylvania’s proud claim to being the flaming torch capital of the world, and Mrs Vanders’ resemblance to the notorious Frau Blücher from Young Frankenstein (1974).

Rating: 8/10 – great fun, and displaying an obvious affection for the movies that have inspired it, Scooby-Doo! Frankencreepy (shame about the title) is a hugely rewarding entry in the series; stick around for the end credits sequence as well, for some self-reflexive laughs at the filmmakers’ expense.

Mini-Review: The Possession of Michael King (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

Possession of Michael King, The

D: David Jung / 83m

Cast: Shane Johnson, Julie McNiven, Jed Rees, Ella Anderson, Cara Pifko, Cullen Douglas, Freda Foh Shen, Patricia Healy, Dale Dickey, Tomas Arana

Following the tragic demise of his wife, Samanatha (Pifko), distraught Michael King (Johnson) decides to make a film about the search for the existence of the supernatural.  By placing himself at the centre of the search, and by allowing all sorts of demonologists and occult practitioners to involve him in their spell-castings, Michael hopes they’ll all fail, thereby reinforcing his belief that it’s all just hokum.  Aided at first by cameraman Jordan (Rees), Michael’s initial endeavours bear little or no fruit until a meeting with a mortician (Douglas) leads to a ritual that doesn’t go as expected.  Plagued by fugue moments, unexplained phenomena, and a persistent noise like interference that only he can hear, Michael begins to suspect that something has happened to him.

He retraces his steps but everyone he’s spoken to or encountered, including the mortician, wants nothing more to do with him.  Rebuffed, and with his behaviour slowly but surely estranging him from everyone else around him, including his pre-teen daughter Ellie (Anderson) and sister Beth (McNiven), Michael struggles to control the often violent transformation he begins to experience, as well as trying to ignore the voice he can hear beneath the interference – a voice that urges him to harm his daughter.

Possession of Michael King, The - scene

Let down by the stupidity of its central character, The Possession of Michael King is a hyper-stylised found footage movie that throws logic out of the window at the first opportunity and never looks back.  With a visual style that’s reminiscent of Se7en (1995) (albeit without the constant rainfall), first-time writer/director Jung assembles a woeful mess that rehashes motifs and camera angles from the Paranormal Activity series, as well as a hundred other found footage movies.  In short, there’s little that’s new or original here, although Michael’s reasons for making his film are certainly some of the dumbest heard for a long time.

The movie also suffers from a final third that seeks to inject some menace via Michael’s attempts to kill his daughter, attempts that are about as frightening as her being chased by a Care Bear.  To be fair, there are some effective moments where Jung employs some uncomfortable body horror but these are few and far between.  Johnson gamely struggles against the script’s more absurd quirks and foibles, and in doing so, saves Michael from being a complete idiot and elicits some much-needed sympathy by the movie’s end.  However, by then, like Michael, you’ll be praying for a way out from all the misery.

Rating: 3/10 – despite several attempts to be cleverer than the average found footage horror movie, The Possession of Michael King undermines itself by having its title character behave as stupidly as possible at pretty much every turn; for found footage, or possession movie completists only.

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Sleepy Hollow

D: Tim Burton / 105m

Cast: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Christopher Walken, Marc Pickering, Lisa Marie, Steven Waddington, Claire Skinner, Christopher Lee, Martin Landau

New York State, 1799.  Young policeman Ichabod Crane (Depp), viewed as an embarrassment by his superiors due to his interest in unorthodox investigation techniques such as fingerprinting and forensic testing, is dispatched upstate to the small hamlet of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a spate of murders where the victims have been found headless.  When he arrives he finds the town’s elders, led by Baltus Van Tassel (Gambon), have no doubt as to the murderer’s identity: a vengeful spirit known as the Headless Horseman (Walken).

A disbelieving Crane begins his investigation.  He learns that one of the victims was pregnant at the time of her death and that there is a link between them all to a will made by the first victim, Peter Van Garrett (Landau).  Further slayings take place, though Crane continues to believe the killer is made of flesh and blood.  It’s not until he witnesses the death of Magistrate Phillipse (Griffiths) that he realises that the Headless Horseman is real.

During all this Crane becomes infatuated with Van Tassel’s daughter, Katrina (Ricci).  Along with the son of one of the victims, Young Masbath (Pickering), she helps him find the Horseman’s grave; the skull is missing, convincing Crane that someone is using it to control the Horseman.  Crane deduces that “someone” is Van Tassel as before Van Garrett changed his will, he stood to inherit Van Garrett’s fortune.  Katrina, however, burns the evidence and renounces her feelings for Crane.  Though, when Crane is wounded by the Horseman in a fight, she tends him until he is better.

Things escalate when the town’s notary, Hardenbrook (Gough) takes his own life.  A town meeting is held in the church, during which both Dr Lancaster (McDiarmid) and the Reverend Steenwyck (Jones) are killed, before Van Tassel is claimed by the Horseman.  With Crane’s chief suspect murdered, he begins finally to piece together the identity of the person who is really controlling the Horseman, and the reasons why they have employed him in such a fashion.

Sleepy Hollow - scene

Justly celebrated at the time of its release for its remarkably effective on screen beheadings, Sleepy Hollow was something of a return to form for Burton, who hadn’t directed a movie since the less-than-well received Mars Attacks! (1996).  Although he wasn’t originally scheduled to direct the movie – that was meant to be creature effects designer Kevin Yagher, who also constructed the story with screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker – this is recognisably a Tim Burton movie right from the start, and his tribute to Hammer movies.  With its muted colour palette, and grim rural setting, Sleepy Hollow is not perhaps the most attractive looking movie you’ll ever see, but it definitely suits the action, its steely blues and ghostly greys adding greatly to the often stifling atmosphere.  There’s a real sense of foreboding about the hamlet and its surroundings, and the movie uses Rick Heinrichs’ excellent production design to impressive effect.  And then there’s the Tree of the Dead, a superbly realised gateway to Hell that is almost a character all by itself.

If the screenplay ultimately is a pretty convoluted concoction, with the motivations of the Horseman’s controller proving to be unnecessarily tangled, there’s still tremendous fun to be had from a movie that invokes the spirit of 60’s Hammer movies with such obvious affection, and includes roles for horror icons Christopher Lee and Michael Gough (who was persuaded to come out of retirement for the movie).  The movie’s mix of horror, humour, action and romance is intoxicating, and is helped by a clutch of performances that embrace the proceedings with gusto.  Depp anchors the movie with a slightly prissy interpretation of Ichabod Crane that gives rise to much of the humour, while Ricci is more quietly proficient as Katrina, her role more in keeping with the independent heroine who still requires saving in the final reel.  Gambon does nervous and guilty with aplomb, while Griffiths is a (brief) standout as the petrified Magistrate. And Walken, with his piercing blue eyes and sharply pointed teeth, impresses as the Hessian horseman, all snarling rage and bloodthirsty intensity.  In smaller roles, Richardson, Jones, McDiarmid and Van Dien all have their moments, but it’s a measure of their collective abilities that they aren’t all lost in the mix.

There’s a lot packed into Sleepy Hollow, from the various well-mounted and staged killings (Van Tassel’s is a striking example), to the back story involving Crane’s mother (Lisa Marie), to the elements of witchcraft that underpin the Horseman’s return, to a thrilling three-way battle between Crane, Bram Von Brunt (Van Dien) and the Horseman (Ray Park, fresh from filming his role as Darth Maul in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) and as equally menacing here), but under Burton’s expert guidance, all these disparate components come together to make a richly rewarding whole.  The movie takes the more fantastical aspects of the story and grounds them effectively, and if there’s a few too many occasions where things are glossed over or rushed through in order to get to the Horseman’s next appearance, then overall it doesn’t hurt the movie’s drive.  With its fiery windmill confrontation and stagecoach chase climax, the movie ends on a thrilling note, and provides a suitably horrible fate for both the Horseman and his controller.

Rating: 8/10 – a stylish exercise in period horror, Sleepy Hollow has yet to be equalled or bettered, and features one of the most memorable villains in recent movie history; with its excellent production design and convincing special effects, Burton’s homage to the horror movies of his youth is both memorable and exciting.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 154 other followers