The Rover (2014)

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Rover, The

D: David Michôd / 103m

Cast: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy, Gillian Jones, David Field, Tawanda Manyimo, Anthony Hayes, Susan Prior

Set ten years after a global economic collapse, and in the Australian outback, an embittered loner named Eric (Pearce) stops at a bar for a drink.  His car is stolen by a trio of thieves led by Henry (McNairy), after their own car crashes following a robbery that has seen Henry wounded in the leg, and forced to leave his brother behind.  With the car being his only remaining possession, Eric gets their car started again and chases after them. They stop and there is a confrontation that sees Eric knocked unconscious.  When he comes to, Henry and his friends are gone.  Eric journeys on to the next town where he obtains a gun; he also meets Rey (Pattinson), who turns out to be Henry’s younger brother.  Like his brother, Rey is suffering from a gunshot wound.  In return for finding medical help for him, Rey agrees to help Eric track down his brother.

Once Rey is seen by a doctor (Prior), the duo head for the next town where they stay at a motel.  While in their room, Rey is shot at by a soldier but Eric comes to his rescue.  The next day, while camping, Eric is apprehended by army sergeant Rickofferson (Hayes) and taken to a nearby army base.  Eric reveals why he is so bitter and angry but the sergeant is uninterested.  A few moments later, Rey bursts in having come to rescue Eric; with the sergeant and his men all dead, the pair escape and head for the next town, where Henry and his gang are hiding out.  At the house where they’re staying, Rey, armed with a gun, goes in first…

Rover, The - scene

The Rover is, at first glance, a meticulously crafted thriller that confirms the promise shown in its director’s previous movie Animal Kingdom (2010), but on closer inspection the movie proves to be a case of the emperor’s new clothes rather than anything more substantial.  It’s a shame because it has much to recommend it, with often stunning visuals that underpin its lead character’s psychological distance from the people he meets.  Eric is a man alone, both in company and in the vast stretches of the Outback that he travels through.  He’s adrift in his own life, but he keeps his resentment of past events close to him, feeding off it, letting it keep him going; without it he would stop moving altogether.  As portrayed by Pearce, Eric is a man clinging on to his sanity, a hair’s breadth away from taking his anger and pain out on everyone he meets.  That he manages to keep himself in check so much speaks of the shadow of the man he used to be, and which is still inside him somewhere.  Pearce gives an appropriately intense performance and makes Eric a fiercely relentless force of nature, largely unrepentant, and borderline psychotic.  It’s a darkly hypnotic portrayal, and easily Pearce’s finest in years.

He’s matched in the performance stakes by Pattinson, who as the slow-witted Rey, commands as much attention as Pearce does, his slack-eyed look and simplistic understanding of his situation making Rey as much a casualty in his own way as Eric is.  Rey is needy, so much so that he attaches himself to Eric in lieu of his brother’s presence, his loyalty changing depending on his proximity to whoever shows an interest in him or supports him.  He’s the opposite of Eric, a (younger) man in constant need of company in order to validate his own existence, and almost incapable of acting independently, such is his reliance on others.  Pattinson subverts his pretty boy image to make Rey effectively an awkward adolescent, his semi-vacant gaze never wavering, his panic in situations he can’t control the reaction of an emotionally under-developed child.  It’s a stirring performance, one that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Pattinson has a greater range than perhaps many people give him credit for.

With two such riveting performances it’s a shame then that Michôd’s script isn’t as well-structured, or clever, as it seems at first glance.  There are too many moments where convenience drives the plot forwards, and few occasions where The Rover feels like an organic story, where the events involving Eric and Rey seem entirely plausible.  The confrontation between Eric and Henry that results in Eric being knocked unconscious is a serious case in point: why doesn’t Henry just kill Eric, instead of leaving him alive, and with their car, and with the keys tossed carelessly aside where they’re easily found?  The movie displays a keen sense of nihilism elsewhere, but here, with the encounter happening so early on, it just undermines the whole notion of Henry’s gang being any kind of threat to Eric, and the script pretty much abandons them from this point on, only bringing them back for the finale (it also undermines the notion that, in the future, life has become even less of a commodity than it is now).

There’s also the reason for Eric being so dogmatic in wanting his car back.  It’s not until the very end that we discover the reason for his relentless pursuit, and it’s a reason that is bound to cause endless debate amongst moviegoers for some time to come.  For this reviewer, it’s a “twist” that doesn’t quite work, and serves only to try and (in a way) rehabilitate Eric with the audience.  It’s a brave move on Michôd’s part but again, for this reviewer, adds little to what’s gone before.  Perhaps it would have been better not to know.

Where the movie is on firmer ground is with its location work and glorious photography courtesy of Natasha Braier, the Australian Outback looking both vast and unexpectedly restraining at the same time, its untamed wilderness as much a character as the people that inhabit it.  Its rugged, inhospitable backdrop serving as a reflection of the hardships the characters have to endure to survive, Braier’s lensing brings out its beauty as well, and in the process, rewards the viewer with breathtaking vista after breathtaking vista.  To complement the visuals there is a strong, percussive score by Anthony Partos that underlines the starkness of the surroundings, but which becomes more emotive as the relationship between Eric and Rey begins to change.  It’s a subtle process but very well done.

Rating: 5/10 – with many aspects that don’t work as well as its writer/director may have intended, The Rover is likely to divide audiences for some time to come; what isn’t in doubt, though, is the quality of the lead performances which are well worth the price of admission.

Mini-Review: The Love Punch (2013)

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Love Punch, The

D: Joel Hopkins / 94m

Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Emma Thompson, Timothy Spall, Celia Imrie, Louise Bourgoin, Laurent Lafitte, Tuppence Middleton, Jack Wilkinson, Olivier Chantreau, Marisa Berenson

When divorced couple Richard (Brosnan) and Kate (Thompson) discover that their pensions are worthless thanks to a company takeover orchestrated by French businessman Vincent (Lafitte), they put aside their differences and set out to steal a diamond worth $10.8 million that he has just purchased.  Their plan sees them travel to the Cap d’Antibes where Vincent is due to marry supermodel Manon (Bourgoin), and for whom he has had the diamond made into a necklace for their wedding day.

Aided by their friends, Jerry (Spall) and Penelope (Imrie), the still-sparring couple plan to attend the wedding disguised as Texans (there to cement a deal with Vincent), steal the diamond and replace it with a fake, and then head back to the UK to sell the diamond and disperse the money from the sale to everyone who’s lost their pension.  But not everything goes to plan…

Love Punch, The - scene

Look through most actors’ filmographies and you’ll see one or two movies that look like they were made a) for the money, b) because of the location, or c) both.  Well, for Messrs. Brosnan, Thompson, Spall, and Imrie, this is that movie, a dreadfully unfunny romantic comedy/caper hybrid that boasts beautiful locations but little else.  It’s a measure of writer/director Hopkins’ script that belief has to be suspended time and time again, from Kate’s unconvincing faint that gets them into Vincent’s building, to the idea of four Fifty-somethings even planning a diamond robbery.  And when they decide the only way to physically attend the wedding is by climbing a nearby cliff face, then you know rampant absurdity is the order of the day.

The performances are hampered accordingly, though Thompson does her best with what she has.  Brosnan tries too hard, Spall is given a military background that no one knows about, and Imrie revisits the sex-hungry character she’s played so many times before (but without bringing anything new to the idea).  The rest of the cast do what they can but it’s an uphill struggle.

The Love Punch was obviously intended as a bit of a light-hearted romp featuring two of Britain’s most popular actors, but instead it’s a stodgy, lumpen mess that never gets off the ground.  Definitely not one for the promo reel.

Rating: 3/10 – awkward and terrible, The Love Punch should be approached with caution; hampered by a dire script and with too many moments where the audience will be wondering if they’re really seeing what they’re seeing, this is one for fans of the principal cast only.

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

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Transformers Age of Extinction

D: Michael Bay / 165m

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Titus Welliver, Sophia Myles, Bingbing Li, T.J. Miller, James Bachman, Thomas Lennon, Peter Cullen, Frank Welker

Dear Mr Bay -

Please, please, please – no more.

Regards -

thedullwoodexperiment

Poster of the Week – The Wild Bunch (1969)

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Wild Bunch, The

The Wild Bunch (1969)

One of many used for the movie’s original release, this poster for Sam Peckinpah’s seminal Western, is both powerful and sobering at the same time, its elements combining to provide an elegiac, mournful reflection of the movie itself.

A lot of it has to do with the use of space within the frame, as well as the way light and dark blend into each other: it’s quite a simple effect but it has such a resonance that you’re drawn to those nine men without even realising it.  With their facing a bright light, and seemingly heading towards it, the symbolism is obvious, but the way in which their shadows play out behind them, merging into darkness, it adds a further, fatalistic aspect to the image (there’s also the uncertainty of which “destination” they’ll end up in).

Above them is the tag line, a further intimation of the movie’s probable outcome, its regretful tone at once sad and forlorn, a doleful proclamation that endorses the foreboding image below it.  It’s a great combination of words and pictures, a forceful statement that things can’t – and won’t – end well for these men, even with all their firepower.

And then, as if to reinforce that view, we have a collection of stills from the movie, action beats that show some of the violent imagery the movie contains, and featuring the Wild Bunch themselves, though not as typical gunslinging heroes, but with their pain and confusion and terror made evident from the faces of Warren Oates and Ernest Borgnine.  The more you look at them, the more you realise how effective they are at highlighting the movie’s often brutal content.  The yellow tint used is important too, representing the fading of time and the passing of an era.

All in all, this is a great, and perhaps, initially deceptive movie poster that gives a clear representation of the movie’s nature, and makes a powerful statement of intent, much like the movie itself.

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

The Hooligan Factory (2014)

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Hooligan Factory, The

D: Nick Nevern / 90m

Cast: Jason Maza, Nick Nevern, Tom Burke, Ray Fearon, Keith-Lee Castle, Steven O’Donnell, Morgan Watkins, Josef Altin, Leo Gregory, Lorraine Stanley

As a young lad, Danny (Maza) gets expelled from school, and with his father in prison, winds up living with his grandfather (an uncredited Ian Lavender).  Wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps as a top football hooligan (but unsure how to go about it, and not as obviously mental as his father), Danny is drifting through life when his grandfather announces he’s selling his flat and moving abroad.  Forced to move out, Danny takes his belongings and is looking for somewhere to stay when he finds himself being mugged.  But help comes from an unexpected source: recently released from prison hard man Dex (Nevern), one of the most vicious leaders of a football hooligan firm ever.  Dex is looking for revenge on the Baron (Castle), a rival firm leader, and responsible for the death of Dex’s young son.

Dex takes Danny under his wing, and he sets about rebuilding his old gang.  Danny begins to find his place in life as he joins Dex and his firm on trips around the country taking on other firms, and getting involved in violent clashes.  As Dex’s firm defeats more and more rivals, the Baron issues a challenge to the remaining firms: put Dex in his place once and for all.  But this proves too difficult, and in the end, the Baron is forced to confront Dex back at the same site where Dex’s son was killed.  Can Dex avenge his son?  Will the Baron get his just desserts?  Will Danny ever gain the respect of Dex’s right hand man, Bullet (Burke)?  And will anyone in Dex’s firm realise that Old Bill (O”Donnell) really is the Old Bill?

THE HOOLIGAN FACTORY

Though rough around the edges, The Hooligan Factory is a much-needed spoof of the recent spate of British football hooligan movies, such as Green Street (2005) and The Firm (2009) (there’s also a terrific parody of Rise of the Footsoldier (2007) in the movie’s prologue).  Where those movies have a kind of grim social commentary driving them forward, here the emphasis is on cutting that approach down to size and then trampling all over it (and with the proper colour co-ordinated trainers).

There’s much to commend it, even though it is uneven and some of the jokes aren’t as original (or amusing) as the filmmakers would like, but it is funny and it lampoons its targets with commendable attention to detail, from Danny and Dex’s outfits, to the scene where most of the various firms’ leaders admit to having an autobiography either on the shelves already, or about to be published.  There’s so much going on at times, particularly in the first hour, that when the movie begins to flag, it comes as no surprise at all, but by then it’s created such a good vibe that a shortfall in laughs is compensated for by the need for a more dramatic resolution (though as if to compensate even for that, Dex’s “passing of the torch” is one of the movie’s best – and most unexpected – visual gags).

In the director’s chair – he’s also the co-writer, with Michael Lindlay – Nevern assembles his cast and lets them loose on the material with what appears to be a great deal of leeway, with some scenes having a semi-improvised feel to them.  Maza has just the right amount of gung-ho neediness that helps make Danny so appealing, while the supporting cast all register their intent to make as much of the script as they possibly can (and if there’s the odd bit of over-acting here and there, well… so what?).  It’s Nevern, though, who makes the biggest impact, imbuing Dex with a violent streak a mile wide but also making him as naive as a newborn, his inability to realise that his two year old son (born while he was in prison) is the offspring of his best mate Midnight (Fearon), both endearing in its own way, as well as being laughable.  To Nevern’s credit, he plays it straight, and while there’s a minor amount of winking at the camera, Nevern doesn’t allow himself the luxury of breaking the fourth wall.

With priceless cameos from the likes of British crime movie stalwarts Tamer Hassan, Craig Fairbrass and Danny Dyer, as well as minor celebs such as Chloe Sims from The Only Way Is Essex and former hooligan Cass Pennant, The Hooligan Factory has its fair share of surprises to keep its audience on its toes, but it’s the humour that counts, and for long stretches this is a movie that delivers belly laughs galore, some that are very silly indeed, some that are blackly comic, and some that are clever allusions to the movie’s more dramatic forebears.  Strangely, there are moments that feel rushed, while others seem stretched out beyond the script’s requirements; on these occasions the movie does grind to a halt, but thanks to Nevern’s firm hand on the tiller, they don’t upset the movie’s rhythm too much, and he soon gets things back on an even keel.

The violence is toned way down in comparison with, say, I.D. (1995), but then this is a spoof, and while it may not be so bloody or contentious, what it lacks in febrile intensity, it more than makes up for with clever laughs and knowing performances from all concerned.

Rating: 7/10 – uneven at times but doing its best to please throughout, The Hooligan Factory succeeds largely due to the involvement of so many people who’ve been involved in the very movies this seeks to mock (including Nevern); a great movie for a Saturday night with a few beers, and well worth watching just for the aforementioned “passing of the torch” moment.

The Sacrament (2013)

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Sacrament, The

D: Ti West / 95m

Cast: Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, Kentucker Audley, Gene Jones, Amy Seimetz, Katie Forbes, Shirley Jones-Byrd, Kate Lyn Sheil, Donna Biscoe, Talia Dobbins

When photographer Patrick (Audley) receives a letter from his sister, Caroline (Seimetz), that tells him she’s part of a sober living community, and that she’s moving with them to a foreign country, he enlists the help of Vice, a multi-media company, to discover what’s really happening.  Joined by reporter Sam (Bowen) and cameraman Jake (Swanberg), they travel to the community’s new location – a compound named Eden Parish – and find Caroline safe and well and happy, along with dozens of people of all ages who have dedicated their lives to the teachings of the man they call Father (Jones).  Father has created a drug and alcohol free, politically independent society where there is no violence, no crime, only a firm belief in the Bible and the need for the community to remain apart from others.

Father agrees to be interviewed by Sam but it doesn’t go as Sam expects, and he finds himself wrong-footed and confused.  He and Jake become increasingly aware that not everything is as it seems, or as Father professes.  A woman implores them to take her mute daughter with them when they leave; an encounter with Caroline leads Sam and Jake to believe that she is high; and Patrick is kept away from them deliberately.  The next morning, as well as the woman and her mute child, there are several other people trying to leave the compound.  Fearing an end to his work, Father makes a drastic decision, one that has terrible consequences for everyone there.

Sacrament, The - scene

With obvious parallels to the story of Jim Jones, The Sacrament has a horrible fatalism that permeates the movie throughout, and makes for often uncomfortable viewing.  Filmed found footage style – but with the odd occasional shot that clearly isn’t part of the set up – Ti West’s latest sees the world of exclusionist religion brought into sharp relief.  It’s a difficult subject to tackle, but West crafts a gripping thriller from the premise of a collective created out of one man’s misguided wish to provide a better life for his followers.  As it becomes more and more evident that Eden Parish is not the paradise that Father would have Sam and Jake (or the outside world) believe, the movie develops a quiet power and the tragedy that unfolds takes on a grim inevitability.

To be clear, there is nothing new here, and nor does West’s screenplay attempt to add anything different to the basic set up, but such is his growing confidence as a filmmaker that, while The Sacrament plays out as predictably as expected, it does so with a compelling fascination that keeps the viewer hooked as events unfold.  It’s also one of the few found footage movies that doesn’t look contrived with its framing, West proving capable of making the majority of shots look organic and plausible in their focus (and without resorting to any manufactured jump scares).  That said, the movie could have been filmed in a more traditional manner and it would still have been as effective.

Adding another layer of credibility to proceedings, West coaxes some great performances from his cast, with Bowen and Jones proving particularly impressive. Bowen is gaining more and more exposure as an actor, his indie leanings often leading to characterisations that have a greater depth to them than you might expect, and here he expertly displays the indecision that Sam feels about Eden Parish and its leader.  And as that leader, Jones is simply mesmerising, his low-key, slightly pained delivery both forceful and unnerving in equal measure.  As his vision for the community begins to unravel, so too does Father, revealing the psychosis beneath the believer, a psychosis shared by Caroline and many others.  It’s a subtle, confident performance, one that stays in the memory long after the movie is over.  Until now, Jones has been known primarily as the gas station proprietor who survives an encounter with Javier Bardem’s badly tonsured psycho in No Country for Old Men (2007), but on this evidence he deserves to be given even bigger and better opportunities to shine.

The Sacrament does have one major flaw however, and while it’s entirely forgivable, it does undermine the growing tension of the first hour.  With the understanding that there are people who want to leave Eden Parish because it’s not all it seems, but are too afraid to speak out, the sudden attempt at an exodus comes across as expediency instead of an intrinsic consequence of events so far.  This awkward turn of events also brings forward the expected denouement, and in doing so, sees the movie abandon its measured approach in the first hour in favour of various confrontations and chase sequences.  These scenes are still effective – one that features Patrick and Caroline and the fate of one of them is as terrible to watch as anything featured in a more bloody horror film – but they end up divorced from the cumulative effect of what’s gone before.

But when all is said and done, this is a testament to West’s increasing skills as a writer/director.  With his revenge Western, In a Valley of Violence, due in 2015, it’s not unreasonable to place him on the list of directors whose movies are eagerly looked forward to, especially on this evidence.  And with so few original voices working in the field of horror these days, West is a talent to be followed with avid interest.

Rating: 8/10 – essential viewing for fans of intelligent, well-constructed terror, with an understated but scary performance from Jones, The Sacrament is a throwback to the paranoia-ridden horror movies of the Seventies; potent and rewarding, this confirms West’s rising status and is pretty much a horror sleeper.

 

The Terminal (2004)

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Terminal, The

D: Steven Spielberg / 128m

Cast: Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Chi McBride, Diego Luna, Barry Shabaka Henley, Kumar Pallana, Zoe Saldana, Eddie Jones, Michael Nouri

Arriving at JFK International Airport, Viktor Navorski (Hanks) learns that while he was travelling from his home country of Krakozhia, a civil war has broken out and all travel permits and visas have been suspended; this means he can’t return home.  To make matters worse, the US government is refusing to recognise the revolutionary Krakozhian government, so won’t allow anyone from there to enter the US.  This makes Viktor “unacceptable”.  The only place he can stay is in the airport’s international terminal, something that Customs and Border Protection head Frank Dixon (Tucci) isn’t happy about but believes will be only temporary.

Viktor settles in at Gate 67 which is unfinished.  From there he ventures forth each day in the hope that the civil war has ended and he can either go home or go into New York as he’d originally planned (he has made a promise to do something for his father, who has recently died).  Through this he strikes up a friendship with Dolores (Saldana), a Customs officer who processes visa applications.  This in turn leads to a friendship with Enrique (Luna), an airport worker who has a crush on Dolores.  In return for food that hasn’t been used on flights, Viktor learns about Dolores’ likes and dislikes and relays this information back to Enrique.  During this time, Viktor also meets air stewardess Amelia (Zeta-Jones).  His attraction to her is tempered by her seeing a married man, Max (Nouri), but a relationship develops between them nevertheless.

As Viktor gets to know more of the airport staff – including Mulroy (McBride) and Gupta (Pallana) – Dixon becomes more and more irritated by his presence in the airport.  He tries to persuade Viktor to leave the airport but Viktor doesn’t take the bait.  With an important inspection coming up that will help towards an expected promotion, Dixon is anxious that nothing interfere with his plans, yet when a desperate Russian with undocumented drugs for his father arrives on the day of the inspection, Viktor interprets for him and resolves the situation with a lie, making Dixon furious with him. This makes Viktor very popular with the rest of the airport staff.

Viktor also continues to see Amelia when she flies in and when she tells him she’s stopped seeing Max, Viktor arranges a romantic dinner but it turns out Amelia has resumed the relationship (though this has an unexpected benefit later on).  When the war in Krakozhia ends, Dixon tells Viktor he has to return home and that he can’t go into New York; with the plane home ready to take off, Gupta stands on the tarmac and blocks it from moving, giving Viktor the chance to leave the airport and honour the promise he made to his father.

Terminal, The - scene

With a wonderful central performance from Hanks, The Terminal is glossy whimsy of the highest quality, a modern day fairy tale that features a princess in peril (Amelia), a wicked ogre (Dixon), three fairy godmothers (Enrique, Mulroy and Gupta), a maid (Dolores), and a handsome prince (Viktor – kind of).  It’s hugely enjoyable and is the type of movie that you can watch over and over again and still spot things you missed every other time (such as the head of the Statue of Liberty – keep an eye peeled, it’s there).  And like all good fairy tales it has a happy ending (though not the kind you might be thinking of).

Based around the true story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who spent eighteen years living in the departure lounge of Terminal One at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport, The Terminal downplays the drama inherent in such a predicament in favour of a heartwarming tale that is often hilarious, and which adds a romantic element that is both cute and bittersweet.  The script by Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson is structured much like a play, with act one concerning Viktor’s arrival at the airport, act two detailing his coming to terms with living in the airport, and act three showing his becoming a valued and respected member of the airport “staff”.  It’s a cleverly constructed script, with nods to wider issues such as immigration and racism, but included in such a way that they don’t intrude on the feelgood, aspirational  drive of the movie, or its message that tenacity and self-belief will always see you through.

It’s Viktor’s positive nature – so ably portrayed by Hanks – that is so affecting, his resourcefulness and persistence the very qualities we would like to think we’d have if we were in his position.  Hanks is nothing less than superb in a performance that is as richly nuanced as any other he’s given.  His choice of expressions alone offers a masterclass in acting; the scene in the men’s room when a traveller asks him, “Ever feel like you’re living in an airport?” is worth watching just for the stupefied look Viktor gives as a silent reply – and it’s made all the more impressive for being a reflection (and Hanks makes it all seem so effortless).

He has some great support too.  Zeta-Jones, still fresh from her Oscar-winning turn in Chicago (2002), makes Amelia appealing and sad at the same time, and in doing so makes the character more credible as Viktor’s possible love interest.  As the hard-nosed Customs and Borderland Protection administrator, Tucci is contained and hard to like but it’s a subtler performance than at first meets the eye, with echoes of a more sympathetic man showing through at odd moments.  And then there’s Pallana, whose deceptively expressive features are a joy to watch, his character’s unwavering paranoia amusing and wistful and, ultimately, well justified.  Luna plays Enrique as an adorable puppy, while McBride and Hensley are more stoic, and as Dolores, Saldana’s sunny approach to the character makes her more and more likeable as the movie goes on (it’s also fun to discover that Dolores is a Trekkie).

With all this favourable material allied to a raft of great performances, it comes as no surprise that Spielberg orchestrates everything with consummate ease, employing a lightness of touch that helps elevate Viktor’s plight from personal tragedy to unalloyed victory.  There’s more than a hint of Thirties screwball comedy in The Terminal, especially in Viktor’s confrontations with Dixon, and it’s to Spielberg’s credit that he augments such a contemporary story with such “old-fashioned” elements, and does it so seamlessly.  As with Hanks’ performance, this is one of Spielberg’s less appreciated movies, but one serious misstep aside – would Dixon really have been promoted after he grabbed Viktor by the neck and remonstrated with him? – he hits the movie out of the ballpark.

Rating: 8/10 – ripe for reassessment, The Terminal showcases an actor and a director working completely in synch, and providing their audience with a delightful slice of feelgood entertainment; richly detailed and with a clutch of stand-out moments, this is avowedly superior stuff.

 

The Expendables 3 (2014)

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Expendables 3, The

D: Patrick Hughes / 127m

Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Antonio Banderas, Jet Li, Wesley Snipes, Dolph Lundgren, Kelsey Grammer, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kellan Lutz, Ronda Rousey, Glen Powell, Victor Ortiz, Robert Davi

Having rescued old friend Doc (Snipes), who’s been in prison in a foreign country for eight years, Barney (Stallone) and part of his team of Expendables head for Somalia in order to stop an arms deal that the US government – represented by Drummer (Ford) – wants foiled; they also have to capture arms dealer Victor Mins in the process.  But the plan goes wrong when Victor Mins turns out to be Conrad Stonebanks (Gibson), co-founder of the Expendables, and a man Barney thought he’d killed years before.  As Barney and his team come under increasing firepower, Stonebanks targets Caesar (Crews) and shoots him, wounding him badly.  They manage to escape but the experience prompts Barney to “retire” the rest of his team, even his closest friend Lee (Statham).  With Drummer still anxious to get Mins/Stonebanks, Barney enlists the help of Bonaparte (Grammer) in putting together a newer, younger team.  Once assembled, Barney and his new recruits go after Stonebanks.  They manage to capture him but their getaway is prevented by Stonebanks’ men who rescue him, and in a reversal of fortune, seize Barney’s young team.

With at first only Galgo (Banderas), a mercenary desperate to prove himself, and Trench (Schwarzenegger) to help him, Barney finds his old team refusing to let him go without them; he also finds himself backed up (unofficially) by Drummer.  The group heads for Stonebanks’ military training complex.  Getting in proves to be easy, but with Stonebanks’ men plus an army ranged against them, getting back out is a whole different matter.

Expendables 3, The - scene

The first Expendables movie was an okay affair bolstered by the concept itself: take a number of ageing action stars and put ‘em all together and see how much fun can be had.  The follow up was more of the same and had an extended airport shootout that was bizarrely unexciting.  Now, with Hollywood’s current penchant for making trilogies out of almost any movie idea, we have the latest – and hopefully last – testosterone-fuelled outing for the getting-on-a-bit daredevils.

For anyone who’s seen the first two movies, the lack of a solid storyline won’t come as a surprise, nor will the lack of credible characters, residing as they do in such an incredible world (perhaps Barney and his team should be called The Incredibles – no, wait, that’s already been taken).  The returning viewer will also see that the dialogue has been kept at a first draft stage, character motivations remain simplistic at best, and the performances are as one-note as before.  In short, there’s been as much effort put into this movie as the first two.

It’s an amazing achievement when a movie is the culmination of all the bad things of its predecessors, and then adds a few more bad things for good measure.  With The Expendables 3, Stallone and co-writers Clayton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt have taken the witlessness of these movies and instead of reining it all in, have instead ramped it up another notch.  There’s the opening sequence where Doc is rescued from a heavily guarded train: he’s been in prison for eight years – why is it only now that Barney decides to free him?  In Somalia, Barney’s jeopardises the mission when he sees Stonebanks and tries to kill him (it’s Stallone’s “Khan!” moment).  When he assembles his new team, Barney awkwardly swaps his old friends for “kids” he feels a paternal responsibility for – so in either case he’s trying to people he cares about from getting hurt, so why the need to change the team (other than as a script requirement)?  Surely it would be more dramatic if it’d been the other way round and Barney was using the new team to rescue the old one.

And then there’s the big bad villain himself, Conrad Stonebanks, a vicious, preening, self-deluded ex-mercenary turned arms dealer who doesn’t exactly hide from the world – at one point he’s seen attending a museum exhibition in the middle of Moscow – but whom the US government appears to have no knowledge of and worse yet, no photos of him.  And yet Drummer tracks him down to Bucharest with apparent ease and the new team track his movements – again, with ease.  But before all this, nothing?  No clue?  Not one photograph to run through a Facial Recognition programme?  No?  Really?

It’s disheartening when you see so little effort going into something that cost $90 million to make (though really it’d be disheartening whatever the budget; the makers of these movies aren’t exactly inexperienced).  But where the script founders and sinks under the weight of its own (limited) expectations, the hoped-for rescue from complete viewing drudgery courtesy of some slam-bang action sequences also fails to materialise.  Just how many times can these guys go through the same motions, the same fights, wade through hundreds of run-into-the-line-of-fire extras and stuntmen, without themselves wondering if it’s all worth it?  And how many times can the audience?

In terms of the cast, the Expendables themselves walk through it all without pausing to act, while newcomers Ford, Banderas and Grammer – we’ll leave Lutz et al. as they’re not allowed to contribute very much – do their best to inject some energy into the proceedings, though Ford’s grumpy turn serves only to reinforce every off screen curmudgeon story you’ve ever heard about the man.  Only Banderas seems to have gauged the mediocrity of the situation and decided to ignore it all; Galgo is the only character you can even remotely warm to (and he’s essentially a big motor mouth).

In the director’s chair, Hughes – who’s been tapped for the upcoming remake of The Raid (2011) (as if we need it) – shows a grasp of how to assemble an impressive action sequence but doesn’t bring anything new to the equation, instead falling back on tried and tested shots, camera angles and set ups.  Of the various showdowns at Stonebanks’ hideout, a two-hander featuring Banderas and Rousey taking on all-comers is more effective than most, and the eventual brawl between Barney and Stonebanks is a severe let-down, less of a brawl and more of a slightly “harder” version of patty-cake.

With The Expendables 4 already rumoured to happen, there’s a sense that whatever box office returns this outing secures, the series is going to continue until Stallone says otherwise (he’s also prepping further Rambo and Rocky sequels).  But unless he hands the writing reins over to somebody else, the law of diminishing returns may well dictate otherwise.

Rating: 4/10 – loud, dumb, unadventurous, and reworking a whole raft of already tired scenarios, The Expendables 3 proves that however much fun a bunch of actors are having on a movie, it doesn’t mean the audience will have the same experience watching it; short on ingenuity and with the now de rigueur extended action sequence to round things off, this is one movie that doesn’t know when to quit.

Mini-Review: Brick Mansions (2014)

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28616Quad_Final.indd

D: Camille Delamarre / 90m

Cast: Paul Walker, David Belle, RZA, Gouchy Boy, Catalina Denis, Ayisha Issa, Bruce Ramsay, Richard Zeman, Andreas Apergis, Carlo Rota, Frank Fontaine

In the not-too-distant future, Detroit has erected a wall around an area known as Brick Mansions.  Ruled over by crime boss Tremaine Alexander (RZA), this ghettoised area is full of drugs and guns and gang members (but not, it seems, any ordinary folk).  When the Mayor (Ramsay) decides that Brick Mansions has to be replaced by a brand new commercial development, he concocts a plan that involves sending undercover cop Damien Collier (Walker) into Brick Mansions to retrieve and “disarm” a hijacked bomb that could destroy the entire area.

On the inside, Alexander is having his own problems.  One of his drug shipments has been stolen by Lino (Belle) (and for no other reason than because the script needs him to).  When Lino proves too elusive to capture, Alexander has his ex-girlfriend Lola (Denis) kidnapped in retaliation.  He tries to rescue her but ends up in jail where Collier engineers a meeting with him and then tries to use him as a way of finding the bomb.  They form an uneasy alliance, and go after Alexander and the bomb together.

Brick Mansions - scene

As unnecessary remakes go, Brick Mansions gets by on its high-impact action scenes – expertly crafted and assembled by Delamarre and the movie’s stunt team – and the still impressive parkour abilities of Belle (who starred in the original movie, Banlieue 13 (2004), and doesn’t look a day older).  Beyond these elements, though, the movie pays lip service to plotting, characterisation, consistency and credibility, and merely jumps from one action sequence to the next with a minimum of fuss or subtlety.

The performances range from so-so (Belle, who has only the one facial expression) to trying (Walker, unable to create a character out of nothing), to embarrassing (RZA – when will someone tell him he can’t do menacing?).  The rest of the cast struggle with roles so under-developed they don’t even reach the level of being generic, and Luc Besson’s script (adapted from his co-written original) further handicaps everyone by relying on the kind of dialogue that sounds like it’s been badly translated from the original French.  While it’s true that Banlieue 13 isn’t perfect, it’s still the much better movie, and all Brick Mansions does is prove it.

Rating: 4/10 – a movie where acting was clearly not a requirement, Brick Mansions revels in its many patent absurdities; as brain-dead a movie as you’re likely to see all year but saved from being a complete loss by its well-staged action sequences.

I’ll Follow You Down (2013)

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I'll Follow You Down

D: Richie Mehta / 93m

Cast: Haley Joel Osment, Gillian Anderson, Rufus Sewell, Victor Garber, Susanna Fournier, John Paul Ruttan, Sherry Miller

When scientist Gabe Whyte (Sewell) flies off to New York for a convention, his wife Marika (Anderson) and young son Erol (Ruttan) have no idea that it’s the last time they’ll ever see him.  The mystery deepens when they discover that he never checked out of his hotel room, and he never attended the conference.  With the aid of her father, Sal (Garber), a physics professor, Marika discovers a basement laboratory that Gabe was using, along with his wallet and mobile phone, and crates of equipment.

Twelve years pass.  Erol is now attending university, while Marika is a successful artist though she has yet to come to terms with Gabe’s disappearance.  They have an uneasy relationship, both excelling in their relative fields but also going through the motions in many respects.  When Sal approaches Erol with details about Gabe’s work, details which indicate that Gabe was working on some kind of time travel device, Erol’s reaction is that it’s all a fantasy and he walks away from it.  He puts Sal’s revelation behind him, but when Marika takes an overdose it spurs him on to replicate his father’s work, and to try and find out if his father really did travel back to 1947 as his notebooks indicate, and if he met Albert Einstein as he’d planned.

But certain elements elude him and the project always fails.  Erol also learns that a man similar in description to his father was killed in 1947.  Now Erol has a twofold mission: to save his father, and to bring him back to the present in order that his family’s lives can resume from when his father was due back from New York.  In the meantime his relationship with his girlfriend Grace (Fournier) runs aground when she finds out what he’s trying to do; if Erol succeeds then the life they’ve built together from when they were children, and the child she is carrying, will disappear, leaving no guarantee that she and Erol will have the same life if his father goes back.  Undeterred, he redoubles his efforts and having solved the problem that had been eluding him, travels back to 1947 with a plan to make sure his father returns home.

I'll Follow You Down - scene

More of a family drama than a sci-fi movie, I’ll Follow You Down downplays the science in favour of a measured approach to its domestic tribulations.  Sadly, this decision makes for a somewhat dour, unattractive looking movie that relies heavily on its cast’s commitment to the material, but which never really springs to life, despite its intriguing premise.  Its low budget doesn’t help either, lending the movie the look of a TV drama of the week, with its drab lighting and flat photography exacerbating things from start to finish.

The performances are the best thing here: from Osment’s tortured son, to Anderson’s depressed wife and mother, to Fournier’s challenging girlfriend, the cast do wonders with a script that skirts banality with uncomfortable regularity.  As Erol, Osment has a tough time developing his character beyond that of the enfant terrible whose genius outshines his father’s, and while he’s convincing enough, when he reveals his solution for persuading his father to return to his own time, it’s hard to credit that Erol would do what he does, as sudden and unexpected as it is.  Before that, Erol is a young man adrift in the world, his father’s disappearance having caused an impediment to his emotional development.  In his scenes with his girlfriend, Grace (Fournier), his lack of understanding of her needs make him seem ungrateful rather than appreciative, and in these scenes his single-mindedness leaves a lingering aftertaste that undermines any sympathy the audience is supposed to feel for him.  But Osment makes Erol as fatally determined as his father, and this symmetry works in the movie’s favour.  It’s not a great performance, but it’s better than the character deserves.

As his overwhelmed mother, Anderson gives a persuasive portrayal of a woman as adrift as her son, but who struggles to lead a normal life after her husband vanishes.  It’s the mystery surrounding his disappearance – the unexplained nature of it – that swamps her and causes her to withdraw from so much of her “normal” life.  Thanks to Anderson, Marika draws the audience’s sympathy in ways that Erol isn’t even close to, and she does it with a minimum of fuss, eliciting the viewer’s support without them being aware of it.  The same can’t be said for Gabe, who in the opening scenes is seen as a doting father, loving husband and all-round good guy.  By the end, these aspects of his character seem more like a charade, as he is revealed to be self-centred and not as considerate of his family as you’d expect him to be.  Sewell has probably the most difficult job of all in trying to make Gabe as credible as he should be, but the script is against him, and never fully expands on his reasons for creating the time machine in the first place.

Garber and Fournier are fine in supporting roles, but again it’s the script – by writer/director Mehta – that lets things down, its plotting too contrived at times (and also, strangely predictable) to be entirely coherent (not to mention that it avoids any philosophical or metaphysical implications relating to the issue of time travel).  In addition, Mehta’s direction fails to add any tension to proceedings, and leaves the final confrontation between Erol and his father lacking in both drama and plausibility; it’s as if the movie needed to end as quickly as possible by this point, and this scene was the only thing Mehta could come up with to do so.  I’ll Follow You Down could have been a deeper, richer, more cinematic experience but instead it opts for a level tone that it rarely deviates from, and which ultimately stops it from being as absorbing and entirely worthwhile.

Rating: 5/10 – viewers expecting a sombre drama centred around the impact of a father’s disappearance on his family, will be disappointed, while sci-fi fans will find the haphazard focus on time travel quite annoying; a bit of a misfire, then, I’ll Follow You Down lacks both emotional substance and a fervent approach to the material, leading to a movie that hopes the viewer will engage with it, while it makes almost the least amount of effort.

Poster of the Week – The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

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Best Years of Our Lives, The

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

One of the best – if not the best – post-World War II dramas was a triumph for all concerned, a seven-time Oscar winner that showed the difficulties of servicemen returning home and facing a range of difficulties in readjusting to “normal” life.  It’s a powerful movie, and thanks to an unusually subtle screenplay (for the time) by Robert Sherwood, matched by astute direction from William Wyler, has remained as impressive a movie experience today as it was then.  Not that you’d guess from the poster…

First off, it’s not the greatest of posters.  It’s fairly typical of the time the movie was made, and in some respects – the embracing couple, the bold assertion at the top – it’s content and approach aren’t dissimilar from many other posters.  Even the image of the “good-time girl” (representing Virginia Mayo’s character) isn’t unusual.  And then there’s the two quotes, from two of the most respected journalists and critics of the time, and which prove to be the only clues – albeit as vague as possible – as to the movie’s content (unless you’ve read MacKinlay Kantor’s novel).  But then there’s that tag line, that bold description of the movie’s merits, and if you’ve seen the movie you’ll know: “The screen’s greatest love story” is pushing it a bit too far.

In truth there are several love stories in The Best Years of Our Lives, and they are all “heart-warming” to one degree or another, but they’re not the movie’s focus, and nor are they the “engines” that drive the various storylines.  There’s much more going on than just a love story, and the movie’s various themes were more dramatic than audiences were used to – just the word ‘divorce’ caused a furore at the time – but again you wouldn’t guess that from the poster, which instead advertises what seems like a grand romantic experience.  It’s a lie, a deliberate falsehood designed to bring people in to see a movie that often reflected uncomfortably their own lives and their own problems in putting the war behind them.

Here then is an example of a movie poster that has a different agenda to the one the movie it’s promoting.  Here is a poster that undermines it’s own movie’s message: that  even the worst difficulties in Life can be overcome, and that life itself is something to be treasured above all.  It’s a shame then that RKO, the releasing studio, couldn’t see that, and create a poster that supported that ideal.  But if you think a movie might be a tough sell…

(For an intelligent, well thought out appraisal of The Best Years of Our Lives, by my fellow blogger Rachel T, please click here.)

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

 

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

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Robin Hood Prince of Thieves

D: Kevin Reynolds / 143m

Cast: Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Alan Rickman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Christian Slater, Geraldine McEwan, Micheal McShane, Michael Wincott, Nick Brimble, Soo Drouet, Walter Sparrow, Harold Innocent, Daniel Newman, Daniel Peacock, Jack Wild, Imogen Bain, Brian Blessed, Sean Connery

Jerusalem, 1194: Having taken part in the Crusades in support of King Richard the Lionheart, Robin of Locksley (Costner) is a prisoner facing a bleak future.  Seizing a chance to escape he finds himself doing so with Moor Azeem (Freeman), who tells Robin he must stay with him until he can repay the debt of Robin saving his life.  Back in England, Robin’s father (Blessed) is killed by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Rickman), his castle razed to the ground, and his lands forfeited.  Four months pass before Robin and Azeem arrive back in England.  When Robin learns of his father’s fate, he seeks out his former childhood friend, Marian (Mastrantonio).  The Sheriff’s men – led by his cousin Guy of Gisborne (Wincott) – chase Robin and Azeem into Sherwood Forest, where they find refuge with a band of outlaws.

Robin soon becomes the outlaws’ leader, and they start to rob convoys and shipments that travel through the forest, including a large cache of money that they learn is intended to pay off a group of barons who will support Nottingham’s challenge for the throne in King Richard’s absence.  With their increasing resistance interfering with the Sheriff’s plans, he hires a band of Celts to find and lead an assault on the outlaws’ hideaway.  With several of the outlaws taken prisoner, and with their executions planned to take place on the same day that the Sheriff intends to marry Marian against her wishes, Robin, Azeem and a few remaining outlaws – including Little John (Brimble), Will Scarlett (Slater), and Friar Tuck (McShane) – must save their comrades, stop the marriage, and thwart the Sheriff’s plans to overthrow the monarchy.

Robin Hood Prince of Thieves - scene

Back in 1991, Kevin Costner was fresh off the Oscar-winning success garnered by Dances With Wolves (1990), and audiences had the prospect of Oliver Stone’s JFK to come later in the year.  But in between there was Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, a movie that promises so much but in practice offers a rather lumpen retelling of the Robin Hood myth, and which makes the mistake of having a lead character who is so bland and unexciting to watch that the movie stumbles along for far too long before it ratchets up the action for its extended, exhilarating climax.

Costner’s Robin is a bit of a dullard, so much so that the romance with Marian makes you question her eyesight and experience of other men.  With such an unnecessary and distracting approach, it falls to the supporting characters to provide any vitality or energy, though we’re talking minor supporting characters in the main, such as Bull (Peacock) and Much (Wild), or McEwan’s cackling turn as the witch Mortianna.  Thank the screenwriters then – Pen Densham and John Watson – that they gave us a Sheriff of Nottingham straight out of the am-dram leagues, and that Alan Rickman (only three years on from his breakout performance as Hans Gruber in Die Hard) embraced the pantomime aspects of the character and gave the movie a much-needed boost.  When he’s on screen there are just waves of pleasure generated by his exasperated, frustrated Sheriff, and lines of dialogue that continue to impress even after all this time: “That’s it then.  Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas.”  But good as he is, Rickman’s performance only serves to highlight how little effort has gone into making Robin anywhere near as interesting.

It’s not really noticeable either, just how much time elapses over the course of the movie.  It takes Robin and Azeem four months to get home, and once they meet up with the outlaws in the forest, a further five months elapse before the Sheriff is given the idea of hiring the Celts.  This seriously undermines any dramatic tension the movie has – until the planned executions are announced – and this leaves the middle section feeling drawn out and at the mercy of the romance between Robin and Marian, which, despite being well acted by Costner and Mastrantonio, still drains the movie of any impetus it’s managed to build up by then.

The unevenness of the script, and problems with the pacing aside, there’s still much to recommend, from the stirring action set pieces, to the often pointed humour – “Where I come from, we talk to our women. We do not drug them with plants.” – as well as the aforementioned supporting turns, to the look of the movie, its rural settings and heavy greens and browns providing a rich palette for the audience to look at.  Reynolds directs with conviction, and with DoP Douglas Milsome’s help, keeps the camera moving in and around the action, often getting in close at unexpected, but effective, moments.

As an updated version of the classic tale, there are some unfortunate anachronisms throughout (mostly of the verbal variety – would Will Scarlett really have said what he does when Robin and Azeem catapult over a castle wall?), and some of the more modern, ironic sensibilities in the script are at odds with the medieval milieu, but they come across as part of the uneven approach to the material; ultimately these elements  fail to gel but don’t impede a basic enjoyment of the movie, and don’t detract when the movie picks up the pace (and becomes more exciting).

Rating: 7/10 – slow-moving in parts (and geographically amusing – Dover to Nottingham via Hadrian’s Wall, anyone?), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves takes a high concept, big budget approach to a small-scale adventure drama and loses its focus accordingly; with Costner and most of the cast hindered by poor characterisations, it’s left to a bravura finale to rescue the film from being completely bland.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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Guardians of the Galaxy

D: James Gunn / 121m

Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro, Laura Haddock, Peter Serafinowicz, Christopher Fairbank, Josh Brolin

As a child, and following the death of his mother (Haddock), Peter Quill (Pratt) is kidnapped by aliens; as an adult, all he has as a memory of Earth and his past is a Sony Walkman and a cassette of his mother’s favourite songs.  Now a skilled thief working for the bandit who abducted (and raised) him, Yondu (Rooker), Quill steals a mysterious orb for an equally mysterious buyer but decides to sell it himself, taking it to the planet Xandar.  When the fence he tries to sell it to refuses to take it when Quill mentions the orb is being sought by Kree warlord Ronan the Accuser (Pace), the man who’d prefer it if people called him Star Lord finds himself attacked by Gamora (Saldana).  Gamora is the adopted daughter of Thanos (Brolin), sent by Ronan to retrieve the orb.  As they fight for possession of the orb it attracts the attention of Rocket Raccoon (Cooper) and his companion Groot (Diesel), who want Quill for the bounty on his head.  They all end up being arrested by the Xandarian police and are sent to the Kyln, a prison in orbit around Xandar.

Once there, Gamora reveals she means to betray both Ronan and Thanos, and wants the orb to be given over to another buyer who will know how to keep it safe.  The four become five when they convince inmate Drax the Destroyer (Bautista) to join them; he wants revenge on Ronan for the death of his family.  They escape, with the orb, and rendezvous with Gamora’s secret buyer, The Collector (Del Toro).  He reveals that the orb contains an Infinity Stone, a powerful gem that in the wrong hands could be used to destroy whole worlds.  One of The Collector’s assistants tries to use the Stone to kill him but she is unable to control the Stone’s power and she is killed, while The Collector’s base is partially destroyed.  Quill and the rest escape with the orb but are ambushed by Ronan; in a dogfight with her sister, Nebula (Gillan), Gamora’s ship is blown up and Nebula retrieves the orb, leaving Gamora adrift in space amongst the wreckage.  Quill rescues her, but not before he alerts Yondu as to his whereabouts.

On board Yondu’s ship, Quill convinces him to help retrieve the orb and join in the fight to stop Ronan (who has since absorbed the power of the Infinity Stone and has threatened even Thanos).  Quill devises a plan to stop him, and as Ronan heads toward Xandar in order to destroy it, the five disparate “friends” realise that only they can save the galaxy.

Guardians of the Galaxy - scene

Long regarded as the riskiest move in Marvel’s assault on the box office, Guardians of the Galaxy is likely to be their most effective, most enjoyable and most well delivered movie for some time to come (and if there’s any justice in the cosmos, their most financially successful movie as well).  This latest instalment in Marvel’s ever-expanding Cinematic Universe is a joy to watch from start to finish, a winning combination of thrills, heroics, action, hugely impressive special effects, enthralling set pieces, well grounded characters, and laughs galore.  It’s a mix that could easily have gone wrong, but thanks to an assured hand at the helm in co-writer (with Nicole Perlman) and director Gunn, Marvel’s bold mov(i)e has paid off.

There’s so much to enjoy here that it’s hard to know where to start.  As an origin movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, at first glance, appears to paint in broad brush strokes, but as the movie progresses and we learn more and more about the characters and get to know them, their individual quirks and foibles become more established, until by the movie’s end, all five guardians seem like old friends.  Pratt takes Quill’s exuberance and cocky charm and establishes it as a cover for the more serious, more regretful character he really is, while Saldana takes Gamora’s hardened exterior – necessary as a daughter of Thanos – and gradually softens it to reveal a more caring demeanour underneath.  That they complement each other is expected, but their fledgling romance is played out with due reference to their differences, and never feels as stereotypical as it might have done given the conventions of the genre.

As Drax, Bautista takes his physical presence and subverts audience expectations – both of the character and his acting ability – by providing a clever, rounded performance that overcomes some arch dialogue and draws laughs from Drax’s literal interpretations of metaphors and analogies.  The WWE star has a great sense of comic timing and delivery and more than holds his own against his co-stars, even the CGI creations Rocket and Groot, whose odd couple pairing is the movie’s strongest suit, their friendship providing an indelible emotional heft.  Cooper invests Rocket with energy and devil-may-care recklessness, while Groot is just… Groot, Diesel investing his simple lines (“I am Groot”) with enough variation of delivery to make his meaning clear throughout.

With five great performances anchoring the movie so well, the supporting cast can only hope to hang on and keep up.  As Yondu, Rooker is all blue skin, pointy teeth and unconvincing thuggishness, while Gillan oozes venom as the villainous Nebula, her voice cleverly distorted to reflect her cyborg attributes.  Pace as Ronan is the antithesis of his role as Thranduil in The Hobbit trilogy, his sharp features broadened and cloaked in make up, his physical presence as threatening as his vocal manner.  And as Xandarians Corpsman Dey and Nova Prime, Reilly and Close offer sterling support (witness Nova’s conclusion after a less than satisfactory discussion with a Kree diplomat).

The performances are the icing on the cake, the story propelling itself forward with undisguised vigour, Gunn’s expert handling never losing sight of the wider story arc that is obviously to come in future movies and is hinted at towards the end.  The dramatic elements fuse well with the humour – Guardians may just turn out to be one of the funniest movies of 2014 – and the action set pieces are exhilarating, especially the aerial assault on Ronan’s ship, the Dark Aster.  There are a couple of missteps: Drax alerting Ronan to their presence at The Collector’s reeks of awkward (and unnecessary) plot advancement; and Thanos (Brolin) is just a guy on a throne, with no menace to him at all (no wonder Ronan betrays him).  But otherwise, the movie is a genuine winner, a crowd-pleaser for everyone of all ages.

Rating: 9/10 – a huge delight for fans and for newcomers alike, Guardians of the Galaxy cements Marvel’s position as global box office leader; with a post credits scene that is just sublime, this is one movie set in a galaxy far, far away that is (almost) pure entertainment from beginning to end.

Lost for Life (2013)

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Lost for Life

D: Joshua Rofé / 75m

A candid, often unsettling look at juvenile killers, Lost for Life looks at four cases where teenagers have committed murder and are currently serving life sentences in US prisons.

The first case is that of Keith Draper and Torey Adamcik, a couple of sixteen year olds who convinced each other it would be a good idea to kill their classmate, Cassie Stoddart.  One night they went to her home and stabbed her to death.  The second case involves Jacob Ind, who at fifteen, killed his mother and stepfather by shooting them.  Third is the case of Josiah Ivy, who at sixteen killed two strangers, Stacy Dahl and Gary Alflen, at their home.  And lastly, there’s Sean Taylor, who at seventeen killed a rival gang member in a drive-by shooting.

Each case features the juvenile killers several years on from when they committed their crimes, and explores their reasons for killing and how they’ve dealt with the repercussions of their actions, and how  – or if – they’ve come to terms with what they did.  There’s also input from their families as well as some of the relatives of the victims, and the movie also takes in the recent Supreme Court decision relating to whether or not minors who commit murder should be sentenced to life without parole.

Lost for Life - scene

All four stories are potent in their own way, and initially it’s hard to understand just how any one of these murders could have come about, but thanks to the involvement of the perpetrators, it becomes clearer and clearer as the movie goes on that there’s never just one factor that sets things in motion, and that the reasons for these dreadful acts are often complex and unpredictable.  What makes these cases all the more interesting is the distance in time and attitude that these “teen killers” have travelled in their own efforts to recognise and grasp both the enormity of what they’ve down, and how their deeds have affected others.

Keith is perhaps the most balanced – if that word can be applied to someone who deliberately set out to kill a girl he was attracted to – of the group, and despite an intermittent stutter, is quite articulate as he talks about what he did and how he’s come to terms with his guilt and how “broken” he was as a teenager.  By contrast, his accomplice in the crime, Torey, is shown evincing an almost complete denial of his actions, and he’s supported by his parents who in one uncomfortable moment – both for Torey and the viewer – state his innocence as if it was the most obvious thing imaginable.  (And this in spite of the fact that the pair filmed themselves planning the murder, and then again after they’d committed it.)

Jacob is equally articulate but there’s something not quite right about his responses and the moments when he closes his eyes – which happen quite a lot – it’s as if he’s reliving the memories of killing his mother and stepfather.  It’s an unnerving possibility, and he’s almost casual about the effect killing them has had on him.  He’s aware of the wickedness of his crime, but it all comes across as if it had happened to someone else, and he talks dispassionately about the events that led up to the crime, including his persuasion of a friend to carry out the murders first of all, and his equally worrying admission that he shot both parents almost as if it was a fait accompli (his friend having failed to do the “job” properly).

The saddest case is that of Josiah, abused as a child and seen as a withdrawn adult, his emotions and his ability to talk about the random killings that will see him spend the rest of his life in prison so suppressed that his lawyer has to instruct him in how to respond from off camera.  To compensate, the movie spends more time with his sister Amber.  She proves to be an eloquent interviewee, but even she struggles to completely understand how her brother could have killed two complete strangers “just to see what it felt like”.  From this we meet Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, who founded the website www.teenkillers.org following the deaths of her sister and brother-in-law and their unborn baby, and Sharletta Evans who has forgiven the killers of her three year old son and thinks other teen “lifers” should be given a “first chance”.  Seeing the two women together is inspiring – albeit for different reasons – and adds a layer of emotion that helps show the effect that these crimes have on the victims’ families.

Sean’s story shows how redemption can be achieved.  In prison he became interested in Islam and eventually became a Muslim, changing not only his religion but his approach to life, rejecting his gang background and lifestyle, and forging a new life for himself.  His moving account of his rehabilitation offers hope for all those teenagers who have killed without giving due consideration of the effect their actions will have on others, and the way in which self-respect can be regained.  Without him the movie would have been painfully pessimistic, but thanks to Rofé’s considered approach to the material and the careful assembly of the various interviews, Lost for Life is a captivating, intriguing, and necessarily thought-provoking documentary that wisely avoids looking for definitive answers as to why these terrible crimes happened, but asks if we can ever forgive the people who commit them.  It’s a difficult question, and as mentioned before, the candour the movie invokes goes some way to increasing the difficulty in deciding, but without this challenge, the movie would not be as rewarding or as stimulating as it is.

Rating: 8/10 – a tough subject given fair treatment, and very pertinent in terms of what’s happened recently in US law, Lost for Life paints a terrifying portrait of youth gone awry; by shying away from a more sensationalist approach, this is an impressive, often haunting documentary that is both horrific and uplifting.

Poster of the Week – Schindler’s List (1993)

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Schindler's List

Schindler’s List (1993)

Sometimes the most effective posters are the simplest, the ones that offer the least amount of graphics, the least amount of text, and the least amount of information.  Often it’s a single image that will feature, something that is integral to the mood of the movie, or gives an impression of the subject matter.  At other times, it’s just the movie’s title, bold against a plain background, that is all that’s needed.  In many ways it’s this simplicity that is more effective than a poster that has lots of things “going on” in it, where the publicity department has decided sensory overload is the way to go.

But this poster for Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece is a perfect match for the movie’s solemn, haunting intensity.  With its uncompromising black background and sombre appearance the potential viewer is immediately alerted to the serious nature of the movie itself.  It’s a striking effect, that background, harsh and forbidding and so unlike the usual colourful or artistically driven posters that we’re more used to.

The background, while effective on its own, also serves to highlight the three components that make up the only respite from all that darkness.  There’s the legend “A Film by Steven Spielberg” tightly assembled above the movie’s title, the first of three complementary fonts used, but not overshadowing the title, its larger, more decorative appearance drawing the eye first and foremost.  And then the eye is drawn downward to the quote from the Talmud, the words slightly transparent towards the top of each letter, as if the very saying itself is in danger of disappearing, a subtle underlining of its importance to the story itself.

And then there’s the single image, a dying candle in its holder, a red flame representing fading hope but also endurance, its splash of colour both relevant to the image and reflective of the visual motif that appears in the movie itself.  It’s a quiet masterstroke, a beautiful touch that speaks volumes, affecting and dramatic and powerful all at the same time.

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

Sharknado 2: The Second One (2014)

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Sharknado 2 The Second One

D: Anthony C. Ferrante / 90m

Cast: Ian Ziering, Tara Reid, Vivica A. Fox, Mark McGrath, Kari Wuhrer, Courtney Baxter, Dante Palminteri, Judd Hirsch

On a flight to New York, Fin (Ziering) and April (Reid) are discussing their plans to meet up with Fin’s sister, Ellen (Wuhrer), her husband Martin (McGrath), and their two children, Mora (Baxter) and Vaughn (Palminteri).  As the plane heads into a storm, Fin thinks he sees a shark outside the plane.  When he sees more, and so does April, he’s absolutely sure.  When one of the sharks is sucked into one of the engines, blowing it out, the plane begins a rapid descent made worse by the subsequent deaths of the pilot and co-pilot, but not before April loses her hand to a shark in the melee.  Fin manages to land the plane, but before you can say FAA regulations or investigation, he’s warning the public about the impending sharknado and then heading off to the hospital with April.

With April (very, very) quickly recovered from her surgery, Fin leaves to find Ellen and her family.  He catches up with Martin and Vaughn, along with old flame Skye (Fox) at a Mets game and they flee to the subway just as the storm hits.  Meanwhile, Ellen and Mora are on a ferry heading back from the Statue of Liberty, along with a couple of Ellen’s friends, one of whom gets taken out by a flying shark.  Back in the subway, flooding causes sharks to attack the train, but the group survive and head above ground where they collect bomb-making equipment from various places; Fin’s idea is to destroy the storm – which has now mutated into two enormous twisters (as in the first movie) – and save the city.  Items collected, they head to the hotel building where his sister is staying, and where they are reunited, Ellen and Mora having made it back safely (but without the other friend, who gets flattened by a falling shark).

Fin and Skye try to destroy the twisters before they combine but their home-made bombs aren’t powerful enough.  Devising a back-up plan involving freon tanks stored at the top of the Empire State Building, Fin’s attempts to get there are helped by the unexpected arrival of April in a fire truck, and the cooperation of the city’s mayor.  Fin and Skye head to the top of the Empire State Building, and with three twisters now about to converge, Fin’s plan has to succeed.

Sharknado 2: The Second One - 2014

The success of Sharknado (2013), a movie with all the style of a bull in a china shop spouting nonsense rhymes, was completely unexpected considering it was more awful than anyone could have imagined.  And with that movie earning itself a 1/10 rating with this reviewer, the prospect of a sequel was like the cinematic equivalent of surviving testicular cancer with one intact, only to be told it’s back, and in the other one.  But – and this is the amazing part – Sharknado 2: The Second One, despite its clunky title, its risible dialogue and still dreadful CGI, is actually more fun than the original, and even more amazingly, it’s actually better than the original.

To be fair, that’s not saying that much, because even with what looks to be a bigger budget, the plot still plays fast and loose, and loose again, with logic and reality, the dialogue is still laughable – check out Fin’s line to April when he retrieves her severed arm (which should have been just a hand) – the special effects are still not even remotely convincing, the sharks are still shoved into as many contrived places as returning screenwriter Thunder Levin can come up with, and Tara Reid returns to give everyone that dead-eyed stare that sharks would give their dorsal fins for.  It’s an impressive collection of negatives for one low-budget movie to cram into ninety minutes, but you can just imagine the folks at The Asylum taking it up as a kind of challenge.

And yet, this time round the makers have added a vital ingredient that wasn’t in the first movie: ironic self-awareness.  It makes all the difference, lifting The Second One up from its expected rung on the lower depths of cinematic hell to a slightly higher rung where it can look down smugly on its predecessor.  From the moment Robert Hays pops up as the pilot of the New York flight, and Fin sees sharks outside the plane in the same way that William Shatner saw a gremlin on the wing in The Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, there’s a palpable sense that someone, somewhere at The Asylum had realised what was missing from the first movie, and acted accordingly.  There are further cameos from the likes of Richard Kind as a washed-up baseball player who gets to swing one last bat at a falling shark, Billy Ray Cyrus as a doctor called Quint (not the only Jaws reference: Martin and Ellen’s surname is Brody), Sandra Denton (Pepa from the rap duo Salt-n-Pepa) as one of Ellen’s unfortunate friends, Andy Dick as a cop with the most unlikely haircut this side of Phil Spector, Kurt Angle as a fire chief, and Perez Hilton as an impatient subway traveller – all of them adding to the unexpected fun the movie’s been infused with.  (There’s also loads more in-jokes and shark movie references.)

Returnees Ziering and Reid keep it (largely) straight though, as does Fox, charged with providing some unneeded back story between Skye and Fin that no one’s interested in, and Hirsch makes way more of his role than he has any right to (even when he has to say the same dialogue twice in different shots).  Also returning as director, Ferrante keeps the pace moving but still leaves a lot of scenes bereft of tension, while the editing is as haphazard and ill-focused as the first movie, and the score relies a little too much on the (The Ballad of) Sharknado to support the action.

Rating: 3/10 – it’s still a mess, whichever way you chainsaw it, but at least Sharknado 2: The Second One knows it; with Sharknado 3 already promised for 2015, let’s hope the makers secure an even bigger budget and do something about those ropey effects, and the ropey production design, and the ropey editing, and the ropey plots, and the – oh well, you get the picture…

 

Top 10 Actors at the Box Office

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There are some actors who can practically guarantee a good box office return for their movies, no matter what the subject matter is, who the director is, the genre, or their co-stars.  It’s these stars who can make all the difference as to whether or not a movie has just a strong opening weekend, or develops (as the industry has it) “legs”.  Here is the current Top 10, based on the box office returns for their career to date.  Some of the stars might come as a surprise – I was completely bowled over by the actor at No 2 – while most of their biggest grossing movies probably won’t, but overall this is an intriguing glimpse into how successful an actor can be if they choose their projects wisely.

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

10 – Robert Downey Jr / HGM: The Avengers (2012) – $1,518,594,910

Robert Downey Jr - The Avengers

With The Avengers (2012) weighing in at number three on the all-time box office list, it’s not exactly a stretch to expect one of that movie’s cast to be included in the list, but Downey Jr might not be your first choice (the motherf*cker at number three might earn that approval), but it’s safe to say that his career renaissance has helped him tremendously (although it does seem to have been going on for some time now).  Downey Jr’s arch mannerisms and free styling acting abilities make him immensely likeable, and he has a charisma that virtually bounces off the screen (and is even more effective in 3D).  With another outing (or two) for Marvel on the horizon it’s unlikely he’ll drop out of the Top 10 anytime soon, and may even head on up the list once a certain bad guy called Ultron gets his comeuppance.

9 – Johnny Depp / HGM: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) – $1,066,709,725

Johnny Depp - Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Man's Chest

Depp’s inclusion in the list is thanks mainly to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, but he’s made enough mildly successful movies over the last thirty years to warrant his placing.  Depp’s choices haven’t always been the most box office friendly – The Man Who Cried (2001), anyone? – but he’s a mercurial actor, always watchable, and he’s often the best part of any movie he appears in.  Upcoming movies might include a further instalment in the Pirates series, but even if that doesn’t happen, Depp is likely to remain a reliable box office draw for some time to come.

8 – Robin Williams / HGM: Night at the Museum (2006) – $574,480,841

Robin Williams - Night at the Museum

Williams isn’t someone I would have expected to have been so high up on the list, but on closer inspection, he’s appeared in over a dozen movies that have taken over $100 million at the box office, as well as several movies that have performed better than they may have been expected to, such as Insomnia (2002) and Flubber (1997).  Bearing this in mind it seems Williams makes more right choices than most, and has a canny knack of picking movies that, while savaged by critics, still bring home the moolah.  With a third Museum movie due this December, and a follow-up to Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) in the works as well, it’ll be a while before Williams’ ranking is likely to change.

7 – Bruce Willis / HGM: The Sixth Sense (1999) – $672,806,292

Bruce Willis - The Sixth Sense

The fact that Willis’s HGM is the brilliant The Sixth Sense is one of the nicest surprises to come out of exploring the list, and shows that no matter how many blockbuster movies an actor appears in – and the Die Hard series hasn’t been as successful as you might think – it’s the movies that sneak in under the radar, as M. Night Shyamalan’s eerie chiller thriller did, that make all the difference.  Everyone’s favourite everyman action star will probably continue to balance big-budget extravaganzas with more idiosyncratic fare (and remind us what a good actor he really is), but if he does he’ll still be the likeable rogue that we’ve all come to appreciate.

6 – Tom Cruise / HGM: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) – $694,713,380

Tom Cruise - Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol

You might have expected Cruise to be further up the list, his well-known box office mojo putting him in the top three, say, but while he has a proven track record, his recent movies haven’t really set the box office alight.  Edge of Tomorrow is still out there crunching numbers (and Mimics), but in the US it hasn’t cracked the $100 million mark yet, and movies such as Jack Reacher (2012) and Oblivion (2013) have under-performed, even overseas where Cruise is even more popular.  And yet, Cruise has a fan base that will continue to keep him in the Top 10, and with another Mission in the works, his place is assured for some time to come.

5 – Eddie Murphy / HGM: Shrek 2 (2004) – $919,838,758

Donkey - Shrek 2

Trading very much on past glories, Murphy has an animated donkey to thank for his high ranking, along with some of his older movies that have remained popular after thirty years – yes, that’s how long it’s been since Beverly Hills Cop came out.  His wisecracking, cracker-baiting manner earned him box office pre-eminence back in the Eighties, but since then it’s been a long slog, with only the Shrek franchise and an Oscar-nominated turn in Dreamgirls (2006) to remind us how good he actually is.  Axel Foley should be back on our screens in 2016, and if that potential treat is prepped right, then Murphy’s place on the list should be assured.

4 – Harrison Ford / HGM: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) – $786,636,033

Harrison Ford - Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

While Star Wars (1977) might have been the obvious choice as Ford’s top movie at the box office, it’s the fourth (and least) of the Indiana Jones movies that takes first place.  But two of the biggest franchises in movie history alas haven’t been as profitable at the box office as you might think, and so my choice for the top spot can only make it to number four.  Still, Ford has been consistent at the box office for forty years now and that’s no mean feat, and with the upcoming Star Wars sequels, as well as the oft-wished for Blade Runner sequel likely to happen at long last, his place in the top five should be secure for quite a while.

3 – Samuel L. Jackson / HGM: The Avengers (2012) – $1,518,594,910

Samuel L. Jackson - The Avengers

Joining his S.H.I.E.L.D. colleague, Mr Downey Jr, Jackson secures the third spot by virtue of being in just about every movie made in the last twenty years, and by appearing in two other movies that have broken the $1 billion barrier, namely Jurassic Park (1993) and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999).  Even movies such as XXX (2002) and S.W.A.T. (2003) have performed in excess of expectations, while Jackson’s gruff but likeable screen persona is consistently entertaining (and even endearing).  With the second Avengers movie hitting cinemas next year, as well as further Marvel appearances (including his own Nick Fury movie) alongside a whole raft of other projects, the second hardest working Afro-American in movies isn’t going anywhere anytime soon from this list.

2 – Morgan Freeman / HGM: The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – $1,084,439,099

Morgan Freeman - The Dark Knight Rises

The hardest working Afro-American in movies – all rise for the man who has played both God and the President of the United States – Freeman has a pretty impressive box office resumé dating all the way back to Driving Miss Daisy (1989).  He’s the star you can always rely on, even in the direst piece of rubbish – Moll Flanders (1996) – or the movie that should have been a lot better but wasn’t – Invictus (2009).  With his rich, mellifluous tones, and friendly patrician manner, Freeman’s presence in a movie is sometimes all you need.  He’s as busy as ever, with several projects in various stages of completion, but rest assured, he’s not retiring anytime soon, thus ensuring his very surprising place on the list.

1 – Tom Hanks / HGM: Toy Story 3 (2010) – $1,063,171,911

Tom Hanks - Toy Story 3

Capturing the number one spot with ease, and with a slew of movies that have all been strong performers at the box office, Hanks rules the roost thanks to the Toy Story trilogy mainly, and some obviously clever choices made in a career that dates back to 1980.  As dependable an actor as you’re ever likely to see, Hanks may not be as prolific as his nearest rivals, but he is one of the most consistent actors working in movies today, and his wry, affable charm is always a pleasure to watch.  The good news?  He’s working with Steven Spielberg again.  The bad news?  He’s also making another appearance as Robert Langdon in The Lost Symbol (release date to be confirmed).  Either way, his place at the top of the tree should be okay for now, but let’s see what happens when Avengers: Age of Ultron blasts onto our screens next April.

The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

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Purge Anarchy, The

D: James DeMonaco / 103m

Cast: Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez, Zoë Soul, Justina Machado, John Beasley, Jack Conley, Michael K. Williams

March 31, 2023: The annual Purge is mere hours away.  A police sergeant, Leo (Grillo) is preparing to use the twelve hour crime amnesty to murder the man who ran over and killed his son.  A diner waitress, Eva (Ejogo) is on her way home to spend the evening with her daughter, Cali (Soul) and father, Rico (Beasley).  And a couple, Shane (Gilford) and Liz (Sanchez), are travelling to see his sister; they have something important to tell her.  Then the couple’s car breaks down, leaving them stranded and pursued by a gang of masked and face-painted Purgers.  Meanwhile, Eva and Cali are doing their best to reassure their father that they will be able to cope with the increasing cost of his medical treatment, but Rico is dismissive.  While they prepare dinner, he leaves their apartment, having made arrangements that will see both of them well taken care of… but at a price.

The Purge begins.  Leo takes to the streets, while Shane and Liz continue to try and avoid the gang that’s pursuing them.  Eva and Cali discover their father has gone – and the reason why.  They also find their building under attack from a team of SWAT-like intruders led by Big Daddy (Conley).  A more immediate threat comes from one of their neighbours but the women find themselves abducted by Big Daddy’s men instead.  Leo happens to be passing by when he sees Eva and Cali being dragged into the street; against his better judgment he rescues the women, and without knowing it, Shane and Liz as well (they’ve taken the opportunity to hide in the back of his car).  Their escape sees Leo’s car hit several times by bullets and later it breaks down.  Eva tells Leo she has a friend nearby with a car and if he gets everyone to her friend’s apartment then she’ll persuade her friend, Tanya (Machado) to let him have the car.  Leo agrees and they all set off on foot.  The group finds itself under attack before they reach Tanya’s apartment, and Shane is wounded in the shoulder in the process.

Simmering tensions amongst Tanya’s family leads to unexpected bloodshed and the group are forced to leave – but without a car.  Outside it isn’t long before Big Daddy’s men capture them.  They are taken to a building that has been set up to provide rich patrons with the opportunity to have their own private Purge, and the five find themselves in a room being stalked by seven of the rich Purgers.  Leo kills some of them, at which point the building is invaded by a group of anti-Purgists led by Carmelo (Williams).  Leo, Eva and Cali flee in the confusion and they head to the home of the man who killed Leo’s son.  The women try to convince Leo to let it go, but he enters the man’s home anyway…

Purge Anarchy, The - scene

It’s an ominous thought, but there’s a good possibility that we’ll be “treated” to a Purge movie every year until the law of dwindling financial returns convinces the producers to shut up shop and move on to pastures new.  In the meantime, this first sequel does its best to expand on the original movie’s intriguing premise, but dulls matters despite its increased budget ($9 million, triple the original’s), and a broadening of the material that takes in everything from Government corruption to an anti-Purge movement to its third act Most Dangerous Game development.   It’s a smart move, but it’s not too long before the viewer may well be wondering, Why didn’t they stick with the whole home under siege schtick of the first movie?  The family under attack is briefly referenced when Eva and Cali’s building is stormed by Big Daddy’s men but it’s less an excuse for some carefully built-up tension and suspense than for Noel Gugliemi’s gun-toting neighbour to bring on the ham.  And the makers have fallen into the trap of so many other filmmakers in the past, and failed to realise that having a group of people running around deserted streets at night while being pursued is about as exciting a prospect as watching an Uwe Boll double bill.

The main problem here is that none of the characters are particularly likeable, so it’s difficult to care if they’re killed or not.  Where The Purge (2013) took some time to introduce its dysfunctional family, here the emphasis is on quick brush strokes and on to the next set up before anyone realises how little has been invested in creating a group the audience can root for.  Leo is as taciturn as you’d expect from a character who occupies an uneasy moral high ground, while Eva, who you might also expect to turn out to be the resourceful heroine is instead relegated to bystander the longer the movie goes on.  Cali is too whiny to care about, and Shane and Liz are as irritating as a paper cut – of all five, these are the ones you hope don’t make it to the next morning.  However, this isn’t the actors’ fault, but returning writer/director DeMonaco’s, his script trying to cram too much in – the whole third act with the moneyed elite feels like it should be the focus of another instalment, and is as dramatically rushed as the rest of the movie.

Thanks to its hurried pacing and uninspired plotting, The Purge: Anarchy is only fitfully involving, and with only hints and oblique clues as to the even wider conspiracy still to be explored, the movie feels increasingly like a transition piece, something to keep the audience happy until the bigger story can be worked out and put on screen.  That said, there are some nice, incidental touches: the woman covered in blood at the roadside, the bus on fire rolling by in the background, the return of the Stranger (Edwin Hodge) from the first movie, but they’re so few and far between, they make you wonder why the rest of the movie has to be so predictable.  The cast do their best with the material but the limitations of their characters defeat them for the most part, and the lack of any real threat – having someone wearing face paint really isn’t scary or threatening any more, not on screen at least – leaves the group’s chances of survival looking more likely than not.  DeMonaco directs efficiently enough but without bringing anything new visually or stylistically that we haven’t seen in a hundred other similar movies.

Rating: 5/10 – a calculated sequel that never really takes off, The Purge: Anarchy shows what can happen when a movie is unexpectedly successful and the idea of a franchise is borne; future Purges will need to be more tightly focused than this episode, and with characters the audience can invest in emotionally, otherwise the series may well find itself purged of anyone who’s interested.

The Selfish Giant (2013)

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Selfish Giant, The

D: Clio Barnard / 91m

Cast: Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Sean Gilder, Rebecca Manley, Lorraine Ashbourne, Steve Evets, Siobhan Finneran, Ralph Ineson, Ian Burfield, Elliott Tittensor

Set in Bradford, two young friends, Arbor (Chapman) and Swifty (Thomas), are looking for ways to earn a bit of money to help their respective families.  Arbor and his older brother, Martin (Tittensor) live with just their mother, Michelle (Manley); she’s struggling to pay their bills, while in Swifty’s household, too many children and not enough income means his dad (Evets) is known as “Price-Drop” because he’ll always take a lower price when trying to sell something.  As they try and take on more adult roles, the duo get involved with a local scrap dealer, Kitten (Gilder).  Begrudgingly at first, he takes the scrap they find here and there, until their persistence pays off and they win his quiet approval.  A fight at school sees both boys excluded and they take the opportunity to collect as much as they can.  They also find that Kitten has a horse that, when it’s not harnessed to a cart to collect scrap, is entered in local horse-and-cart races.  When Kitten discovers that Swifty has a natural way with horses, he begins to favour him over Arbor.

This sours the boys’ friendship and leads to arguments between them.  It also leads Arbor to steal some valuable copper plating from Kitten and try and sell it to another scrap dealer in another town.  However, Arbor’s luck runs out when the men who sold Kitten the plating also arrive at the scrap dealer’s and take not only the plating but the other scrap Arbor has amassed and leave him with nothing.  Forced to make amends with Kitten, Arbor has to steal some underground cabling that’s part of the nearby power plant complex.  He persuades Swifty to help him, but their plan goes awry, and with serious consequences.

Selfish Giant, The - scene

From the outset, The Selfish Giant paints a grim picture of life in the North of England, with its run-down urban settings, permanently overcast skies and scrapheap metaphor.  This is a depressing, often angry, often frustrating slice-of-life movie that sets up its two main characters as good-hearted kids who are just trying to do what they can for their families – even if their methods are not exactly legitimate – and whose friendship is probably the only really good thing either has in their lives.  With Life proving a daily struggle in so many ways, it’s this attachment and commitment to each other that gives the movie its heart and provides a welcome respite from the harsh realities that hinder them from having a better life.  Their reliance on each other, quietly understated but the glue that binds their friendship, is the one positive that keeps them going when everything else around them is so transitory.

Given the gloomy backdrop, you could be forgiven for thinking that there isn’t any humour to be found in the movie, but thankfully there is, borne out of the two boys’ experiences and offering occasional relief from the somber drama.  Of the two of them, Arbor is the joker, the piss-taker who doesn’t realise he’s being tolerated rather than included, while Swifty’s softer, more approachable personality gives rise to the probability that of the two of them, he’s the one most likely to make something of his life (and maybe escape their grim surroundings).  Once Swifty becomes more involved with Kitten’s horse, it’s clear that Arbor is aware of this too, and the rift that develops between them becomes inevitable.  It doesn’t help that Arbor feels alienated from everyone else around him – even his family – and that his options for the future are dwindling fast; he’s only thirteen but already his potential seems exhausted.

It’s a terrible realisation, and under the auspices of many other directors, would leave most viewers feeling dismayed and hollow inside at the (perceived) injustice of it all.  But under the careful eye of award-winning documentary filmmaker Barnard – she made the hugely impressive The Arbor (2010) – The Selfish Giant is an absorbing, thoughtful, intelligent, heartfelt, and ultimately redemptive movie that pulls very few punches in its depiction of “slum” life, and has no time for sentimentality or anything even remotely maudlin (just as the characters don’t).  Barnard handles the material with a surety that draws in the viewer and makes them root for Arbor and Swifty all the way, and shows she has an instinctive appreciation for the trials and tribulations the characters experience.  She also has marvellous support from DoP Mike Eley and editor Nick Fenton, and elicits exemplary performances from her two leads (both making their acting debuts).

Inspired by Oscar Wilde’s short story of the same name (though it’s hard to find any real relation between them), the movie owes more to Of Mice and Men than anything else, but is as much its own thing as to make any real comparisons irrelevant.  What is clear is that Chapman and Thomas are both actors with very bright futures and Barnard’s move to feature filmmaking has been way too long in coming.

Rating: 8/10 – often tough to watch, and not afraid to leave its audience as battered and bruised as its two protagonists, The Selfish Giant is as far from a feel good movie as you’re likely to get, but an impressive achievement nevertheless; raw, ambitious and unexpectedly moving in places, this is a movie that continues to resonate long after it’s been seen.

Violet & Daisy (2011)

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Violet & Daisy

D: Geoffrey Fletcher / 88m

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

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

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

Violet & Daisy - scene

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

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

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

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

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

D: Matt Reeves / 130m

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

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

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

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

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mini-Review: Ping Pong Summer (2014)

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Ping Pong Summer

D: Michael Tully / 92m

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

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

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

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

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

Poster of the Week – Westworld (1973)

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Westworld

Westworld (1973)

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

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

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

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

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How to Train Your Dragon 2

D:Dean DeBlois / 102m

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

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

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

How to Train Your Dragon 2 - scene

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

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

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

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

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

Hercules (2014)

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Hercules (2014)

D: Brett Ratner / 98m

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

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

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

Hercules - scene

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

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

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

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

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

Mini-Review: The Other Woman (2014)

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Other Woman, The

D: Nick Cassavetes / 109m

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

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

Other Woman, The - scene

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

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

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

Speed (1994)

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MSDSPEE FE005

D: Jan de Bont / 116m

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

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

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

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

Speed - scene

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

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

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

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

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

Poster of the Week – Dracula (1958)

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Dracula (1958)

Dracula (1958)

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

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

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

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

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

I Am Divine (2013)

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I Am Divine

D: Jeffrey Schwarz / 90m

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

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

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

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

I Am Divine - scene

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

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

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

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

Joy Ride 3 (2014)

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Joy Ride 3

D: Declan O’Brien / 96m

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

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

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

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

Joy Ride 3 - scene

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

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

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

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

Blackthorn (2011)

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Blackthorn

D: Mateo Gil / 102m

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

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

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

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

Blackthorn - scene

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

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

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

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

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

Phil Spector (2013)

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Phil Spector

D: David Mamet / 92m

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

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

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

Phil Spector - scene

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

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

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

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

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

Barefoot (2014)

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Barefoot

D: Andrew Fleming / 90m

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

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

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

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

Barefoot - scene

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

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

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

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

10 Worst Movie Remakes…Ever!

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

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

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

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

Diabolique

“Are we really doing this?”

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

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

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

Rollerball (2002)

“Okay, let’s play dodgeball!”

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

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

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

Truth About Charlie, The

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

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

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

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

Swept Away (2002)

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

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

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

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

Haunting, The (1999)

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

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

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

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

Stepford Wives, The (2004)

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

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

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

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

City of Angels

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

3 – Taxi (2004) – D: Tim Story / 97m

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

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

Taxi (2004)

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

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

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

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

MCDWIMA EC008

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

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

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

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

Pink Panther, The (2006)

“Oh my God! The reviews are in!”

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

 

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

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Cul-de-sac

Cul-de-sac (1966)

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

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

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

A Long Way Down (2014)

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Long Way Down, A

D: Pascal Chaumeil / 96m

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

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

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

Long Way Down, A - scene

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Last Boy Scout (1991)

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Last Boy Scout, The

D: Tony Scott / 105m

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

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

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

Last Boy Scout, The - scene

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

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

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

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

Cold Lunch (2008)

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Cold Lunch

Original title: Lønsj

D: Eva Sørhaug / 90m

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

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

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

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

Cold Lunch - scene

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

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

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

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

Enemy (2013)

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Enemy

D: Denis Villeneuve / 90m

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

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

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

Enemy - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Panther's Claw, The

D: William Beaudine / 70m

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

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

Panther's Claw, The - scene

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

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

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

 

Endless Love (2014)

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Endless Love (2014)

D: Shana Feste / 104m

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

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

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

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

Endless Love - scene

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

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

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

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

Poster of the Week – The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953)

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Titfield Thunderbolt, The

The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953)

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

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

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

The Angriest Man in Brooklyn (2014)

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Angriest Man in Brooklyn, The

D: Phil Alden Robinson / 92m

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

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

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

Angriest Man in Brooklyn, The - scene

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

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

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

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

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

They Came Together (2014)

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They Came Together

D: David Wain / 83m

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

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

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

They Came Together - scene

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

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

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

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

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

New Tale of Zatoichi (1963)

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New Tale of Zatoichi

Original title: Shin Zatôichi monogatari

D: Tokuzô Tanaka / 91m

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

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

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

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

New Tale of Zatoichi - scene

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

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

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

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

Clowne (2014)

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Clowne

D: Jarand Breian Herdal / 34m

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

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

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

Clowne - scene

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

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

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

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

The End (2012)

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Fin

Original title: Fin

D: Jorge Terregrossa / 92m

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

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

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

End, The - scene

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

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

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

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

Chef (2014)

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Chef

D: Jon Favreau / 114m

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

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

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

Chef - scene

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

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

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

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

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

Hypocrites (1915)

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Hypocrites

D: Lois Weber / 54m

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

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

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

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

Hypocrites - scene

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

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

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

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

Poster of the Week – Stoker (2013)

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Stoker

Stoker (2013)

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

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

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

Agree? Disagree? Let me know.

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