Mini-Review: Lila and Eve (2015)

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Lila and Eve

D: Charles Stone III / 94m

Cast: Viola Davis, Jennifer Lopez, Shea Whigham, Julius Tennon, Aml Ameen, Ron Caldwell, Andre Royo, Chris Chalk, Michole Briana White, Yolonda Ross

Following the death of her eldest son Stephon (Ameen) in a drive-by shooting, single mother Lila (Davis) finds herself at a loss as to how to continue with her life. She puts on a brave front for her youngest son Justin (Caldwell), and struggles with the lack of progress the police are making in finding her son’s killer. When she attends a local support group she meets Eve (Lopez), who lost her nine year old daughter. Eve persuades Lila to look into Stephon’s death herself, and they start by looking into why the intended victim of the drive-by shooting was the target. They learn that the victim was dealing drugs where he shouldn’t have been and his death was just a matter of “business”. In the process of learning this, Eve shoots and kills the drug dealer who gives them the information, but not before he’s given them the names of the men who supplied him.

The detectives investigating Stephon’s death, Holliston (Whigham) and Skaketti (Royo), are assigned to this new shooting. While it looks like another gang hit, Holliston isn’t so sure. Lila, meanwhile, having been shocked by Eve’s actions, tries to put it behind her. A burgeoning romance with her neighbour, Ben (Tennon), keeps her occupied until Eve pressures her into finding the men who supplied the dead dealer. They follow them to the roof of a car park; once there, Lila pulls a gun on them and when they try to resist she shoots and wounds one and kills another (as well as another dealer). This time the wounded man gives them the name of the man who carried out the shooting, Alonzo (Chalk), then Lila kills him. Holliston begins to piece together what’s happening and becomes suspicious of Lila. And then she and Eve find Alonzo, and Lila prepares to take her revenge…

Lila and Eve - scene

A female-driven murder/revenge movie that features a bravura performance from Viola Davis, Lila and Eve has a fatalistic 70’s feel to it that suits the mood and the tone of the narrative, and keeps its tale of hate-filled revenge refreshingly simple and straightforward. It does stretch credulity at times in terms of how easily Lila and Eve find out who’s responsible for Stephon’s death, and how inept it makes the otherwise quite astute Holliston look in comparison, but this corner-cutting by screenwriter Patrick Gilfillan keeps the movie from meandering, and allows the pace to aid in keeping the audience involved.

It helps that the viewer also remains involved thanks to Davis’s emotive, fearless portrayal of Lila, a woman pushed to the edge by the sense of injustice she feels regarding her son’s death, and who finds the strength within herself to navigate the moral maze revenge throws up in her path. For a movie that looks to have been made on a fairly low budget, and which aims for a gritty realism (which it achieves for the most part), Davis’s presence elevates the material and makes the movie much more than a simple revenge drama. As her friend and confederate in revenge, Lopez is much more effective here than she was in The Boy Next Door (2015), bringing a coiled, steely energy to her role that fits comfortably with Lila’s hesitant, uncertain belief in what they’re doing. Whigham is equally good as the detective who cites Columbo as a role model for cops, and Tennon (Davis’s real life husband) adds a layer of humility and gentleness that provides the movie with some necessary breathing room.

Rating: 7/10 – directed with confidence and unassuming flair by Stone III, Lila and Eve is a spirited, enjoyable crime drama that isn’t afraid to show the human consequences of random violence; a pleasant surprise amongst all the other crime dramas out there and well worth watching for the performances alone (even Royo’s, whose character is written as an idiot, and is subsequently played like one).

The Wolfpack (2015)

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Wolfpack, The

D: Crystal Moselle / 90m

With: Mukunda Angulo, Narayana Angulo, Govinda Angulo, Susanne Angulo, Oscar Angulo, Bhagavan Angulo, Krsna Angulo, Jagadesh Angulo, Visnu Angulo

If you were in Manhattan’s Lower East Side around 2010 and saw six siblings walking around looking like stand-ins for the cast of Reservoir Dogs, then chances are you were looking at the Angulo brothers. You might have been amused by the way they were dressed, but what you wouldn’t have known was that this was very likely the first time the brothers had been out of their 16th-storey four-bedroom apartment – by themselves. The brothers – Mukunda, twins Govinda and Narayana, Bhagavan, Krsna, and Jagadesh – had previously been confined to their home – along with their sister, Visnu – by their father, Oscar, and only allowed out with their mother, Susanne, for doctors’ appointments. Home-schooled by their mother, the children had grown up without friends or relatives to offset their confinement, but in a remarkable twist – given that Oscar’s reason for keeping them at home was to ensure they didn’t fall victim to the city’s dangers – was to provide them with movies, lots and lots of movies (at one point the brothers estimate they have around 5,000 VHS tapes and DVDs).

Access to these movies proved to be the children’s saving grace. With the kind of passion only children can bring to a situation, they began to make their own versions of their favourite movies, including the aforementioned Reservoir Dogs, and The Dark Knight. By painstakingly writing down each line in the movie and memorising them, and then creating their own props and costumes, the brothers recreated the look and feel of these movies, and in doing so created a world in which their confinement could be endured. One year they even made their own horror movie featuring Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers.

Their reclusive lifestyle began to crumble when, in 2010, Mukunda decided one day to leave the apartment by himself. Worried that he might be spotted by his father, he did what any concerned teenager would do in those circumstances: he wore a disguise. The only problem was the disguise he chose was a cardboard approximation of Michael Myers’ Halloween mask. The locals called the police and Mukunda ended up in a mental ward for the next two weeks before being allowed home. His “escape” proved to be the catalyst for several key events: the boys began going out together (which is how they met Moselle), Susanne contacted her mother for the first time after thirty years (something Oscar had insisted she not do), and in time, Mukunda found a job and moved out. With their father’s controlling approach to their lives broken, the brothers, and their mother, have now begun to spread their wings.

Wolfpack, The - scene

The Wolfpack is one of the most fascinating, and frustrating, documentaries of recent years. It’s fascinating because it looks at a family that has existed for nearly fifteen years under what amounts to house arrest, and frustrating because it raises many questions it doesn’t answer. In presenting the Angulo’s story, Moselle – who in 2010 was a graduate of New York’s School of Visual Arts – has chosen to rely on archive footage filmed by the Angulo brothers themselves to illustrate their back story, while using first person interviews and contemporary footage to provide context and further explanations of their unusual lifestyle. But as we don’t get to hear the questions that Moselle asks, some of the responses, while remarkably insightful, are strangely perfunctory; the brothers often sound like they’re reciting lines from the movies they’ve seen.

The relationship between the brothers and their parents doesn’t yield any better results. Oscar is controlling and suspicious of the outside world, but we never really get to know why (it’s possible he doesn’t know himself any more). He makes claims about his ability to influence people, but his appearance belies this, as does his refusal to work because it would make him “a slave to society”. However, Susanne has been so complicit in her husband’s willingness to “retire” from society that she has to bear an equal responsibility for their particular withdrawal from the wider world. But neither Moselle nor the brothers address this in any purposeful way, leaving the moment when she talks to her mother less affecting than it should be. Oscar is seen wandering the apartment from time to time, and makes vague justifications for his actions, and while it becomes clear that there is animosity between him and Mukunda, his interactions with the rest of his family are kept to a minimum. Whether or not this was a deliberate choice by Moselle, or because Oscar didn’t want to cooperate as much as his children, the original mindset that led to his decision needed further examination, and the movie suffers accordingly.

That the six brothers – sister Visnu suffers from Turner Syndrome and doesn’t feature as much as a result – have turned out to be as well-balanced as they have is ascribed to their learning about life through movies. Again, the movie doesn’t delve deeply enough into this idea to fully support or prove the matter conclusively, and so we have to take it on trust that Mukunda et al. have grown up to be so confident by a kind of cinematic osmosis. (Though it doesn’t help when Mukunda went outside in his Michael Myers mask; a regular teenager wouldn’t have done that at all, and the authorities response to send him to a mental ward speaks of a deeper problem that again isn’t addressed or mentioned.)

With so much left unanswered, The Wolfpack fortunately retains its fascination by virtue of the footage the children have filmed over the years, footage that shows a family apparently living like any other. Although their apartment could certainly do with a makeover, it’s clear that the money from Susanne’s stipend as a home-schooler meant that the children didn’t go without, and it’s this contradiction – the outside world is bad unless it’s assimilated into the apartment – that adds to the movie’s allure. And their own versions of the movies they’ve seen are fascinating in their own right, a small-scale triumph of ingenuity and opportunity (would they have made these movies if they had access to the outside world?). Their initial trips outside by themselves show them taking small steps – some get their long hair cut, they go to the cinema, they take a trip to Coney Island and paddle in the sea – but as a precursor to the things they now can do, it leaves the viewer wondering what will happen next to them all. Perhaps Moselle can stay in touch with them and in a few years, let us know.

Rating: 6/10 – lacking the focus needed to explore the Angulo children’s singular experience growing up, and the reasons for it, The Wolfpack relies heavily on the children themselves and the similar personalities they’ve developed during their early lives; thought-provoking to be sure, but in the sense that there’s a lot that’s been left unsaid, the movie is still a unique look at an upbringing that most of us couldn’t even begin to imagine.

For One (Stretched) Week Only: Australian Cinema – Part V

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Australian Cinema Part V – 1991-2015

The resurgence of the Australian Movie Industry during the Seventies and Eighties continued into the Nineties, but with an extra consideration: the industry had to make movies that could appeal to foreign audiences as much as those at home. Following the international success of “Crocodile” Dundee (1986), movie makers slowly came round to the idea that Australian movies didn’t have to be so insular or phlegmatic, determinedly historical or austere. It was during the Nineties that more and more Australian movies showed that they could get serious messages across – and still be fun.

Most of these movies were made on low budgets, but they were inventive and funny and warm-hearted, and audiences (and not just in Australia) found themselves enjoying the time they spent with some of the quirkiest characters to come out of any country’s working class psyche. Characters such as the determined Scott Hastings in Strictly Ballroom (1992), the socially awkward Muriel Heslop in Muriel’s Wedding (1994) (“You’re terrible, Muriel”), and the magnificently patriarchal Darryl Kerrigan in The Castle (1997) – these three and more showed audiences just how unconventional Australians could be and still be recognisable as individuals just like us. And these movies were hilarious, tapping into a cultural cheerfulness and sense of the absurdity of every day life that elevated them above the likes of Barry Mackenzie Holds His Own (1974) or The True Story of Eskimo Nell (1975). It was as if Australian producers, writers and directors had somehow (finally) tapped into the nation’s sense of humour and realised what a box office goldmine they had.

Further crowd pleasers followed: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) was such an unexpected treat that it spawned a stage musical that can still be seen somewhere in the world in 2015. Even now, lines like “Ummm… do you have The Texas Chainsaw Mascara?” and “That’s just what this country needs: a cock in a frock on a rock” are still as laugh out loud funny as they were twenty-one years ago. And the performances in these and other comedies are all first class, guided by precocious up-and-coming directors like Stephan Elliott, P.J. Hogan, and the Dutch-born Rolf de Heer. 1996 saw an Australian movie that successfully combined drama with comedy to provide an emotionally charged study of a musician battling with mental illness. The movie was Shine, and it brought Geoffrey Rush to the world’s attention (and bagged him a Best Actor Oscar). Here was further evidence that Australian movie makers were growing bolder and less afraid of taking risks with their projects. Even when certain movies didn’t achieve their full potential – Doing Time for Patsy Cline (1997), Paperback Hero (1999) amongst others – there was enough that was right about each production to warrant giving each movie a more than cursory look.

Dish, The

With the industry at its healthiest, it eased into the new millennium and gave the world three very different movies that showcased the confidence and eclecticism of contemporary Australian movie makers. One was The Dish (2000), the second was Looking for Alibrandi (2000), and the third was Chopper (2000). Though each movie told a different story in a different style, and they were poles apart in terms of subject matter and approach, with, in particular, Chopper‘s uncompromising violence and hard-edged grittiness contrasted against The Dish‘s feelgood, humanistic recounting of Australia’s involvement in the 1969 Moon landing (who can forget the band playing the US national anthem?), Looking for Alibrandi was an emotionally resonant and complex look at the trials and traumas of regular teenage life. But this disparity was proof that Australian cinema was continuing to be vital and expressive on a variety of themes, and that it was growing bolder with each year, challenging the notion that such a relatively small producer of movies couldn’t possibly hold its own against Hollywood.

Chopper

The decade continued in the same vein, with Australia proving a showcase for the type of talent that couldn’t be found elsewhere. Australia’s cultural heritage, once the “meat and potatoes” of Australian movie production, had given way to examinations of modern day issues that had previously been overlooked or given scant notice. Directors such as Baz Luhrmann came into their own, while actors such as Heath Ledger and Cate Blanchett rose to prominence. Awards from around the world kept flooding in, and there was a feeling that Australian cinema was unbeatable, its refusal to follow cinematic trends or the dictates of other movie industries, leading to further examples of a country finally embracing all the elements and factors that go into making a great Australian movie. Between 2001 and 2006, Australian production companies made and released the following movies:

2001 – Charlotte Gray, Lantana, The Man Who Sued God, Moulin Rouge!

2002 – Black and White, Dirty Deeds, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Swimming Upstream, The Tracker

2003 – Cracker Bag, Gettin’ Square, Japanese Story, The Rage in Placid Lake

2004 – A Man’s Gotta Do, Oyster Farmer, Somersault, Tom White

2005 – Little Fish, The Proposition, Wolf Creek

2006 – Candy, Happy Feet, Jindabyne, Kenny, Ten Canoes

And then in 2007, a strange thing happened: roughly the same amount of movies were being made, but the steady stream of critical and commercial hits dried up. 2007 was a year that yielded a succession of disappointing, uninspired movies, and 2008 proved only slightly better, with only The Black Balloon and Mark Hartley’s energetic Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! making any real impact (sad, also, that a movie looking back over Australia’s recent output should prove to be more engaging than its current offerings). 2009 brought some minor gems – The Boys Are Back, Bright Star, In Her Skin, Mary and Max – but again there wasn’t one movie that stood out from the rest in terms of quality or, more importantly, appeal.

Less movies were made in 2010 as the industry began to stumble in the face of increasing disappointment from critics and audiences alike. Animal Kingdom (2010) bucked the trend, but it was alone in its efforts to reinvigorate what many were coming to feel was a stagnant period in Australian movie making. 2011 was no different, leading viewers to mistrust the idea that Australia was still capable of making provocative, entertaining, relevant movies any more. Fred Schepisi had some success with The Eye of the Storm, and Sleeping Beauty was an icily stylised look at sexual compulsion, but again, two movies out of around thirty doesn’t make for a good return.

Sleeping Beauty

As the decade continued, Australian movies found themselves precariously balanced between staying true to their cultural and historical roots (and putting enough of a twist on things to make them appeal to a broader audience), and attempting, as “Crocodile” Dundee (1986) had, to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. A degree of uncertainty seemed to be holding movie makers back, and risk taking seemed to be avoided at all costs. 2012 was no different, and despite featuring new movies from the likes of John Duigan (Careless Love), Rob Sitch (Any Questions for Ben?), Rolf de Heer (The King Is Dead!), and P.J. Hogan (Mental), left many wondering if the industry would ever climb out of the innovative mire it had found itself in.

And then in 2013, signs that a revival – of sorts – was beginning to happen began appearing, with a clutch of movies that showed it wasn’t all doom and gloom (though the industry wasn’t quite out of the woods just yet). Baz Luhrmann released his lavishly mounted but flawed The Great Gatsby. Mystery Road, Tracks, Two Mothers, and The Railway Man were also released and made an impact that suggested the downturn was about to be redressed. And 2014 continued the upward trend, with more well received movies being released than in previous years, including The Babadook, Kill Me Three Times, The Mule, and Predestination.

Now in 2015, there’s still a lingering sense that the industry needs to step up its game. But a massive boost was given to it this year with the return of one, sorely missed, iconic character from Australia’s post-apocalyptic future, Max Rockatansky, in Mad Max: Fury Road. Now officially the most successful Australian movie ever made – sorry, “Crocodile” Dundee – George Miller’s crazy, riotous action movie is the kind of bold, frenetic auteur-driven visual/aural experience that doesn’t come along too often, but if it helps to give Miller’s directing confederates the push needed to make their own bold movies then with a bit of luck Australian cinema might just regain the acclaim it deserved in the Eighties and Nineties.

Mad Max Fury Road

For One Week Only: Australian Cinema – Part IV

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Australian Cinema Part IV – 1971-1990

With Australian cinema firmly in the doldrums, it took John Gorton, the Prime Minister from 1968-1971 to come to its rescue. He implemented a raft of government sponsored schemes designed to support cinema and the arts, and this was continued by his successor, Gough Whitlam. With funding and training now widely available, Australian movies began to appear in ever greater numbers, and two distinct forms of movie making emerged in the Seventies, the Australian New Wave and Ozploitation.

The New Wave (also known as the Australian Film Revival, Australian Film Renaissance, or New Australian Cinema) introduced a more direct, volatile approach to movie making, with themes of violence and sexuality brought more to the fore than they had previously. New Wave directors often made movies that were tough and uncompromising, with the Australian landscape featuring as an integral part of contemporary features. The era saw the start of several impressive careers, both behind the camera – directors Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, George Miller, John Duigan, and DoP John Seale – and in front of it – Judy Davis, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown, Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman.

Australian movies began to be regarded highly abroad as well as at home. Walkabout (1971) premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972) was the first movie to achieve over A$1,000,000 at the Australian box office. Production was booming suddenly, and some movies proved bulletproof; such was the scarcity of homegrown content in the Sixties that this resurgence also brought back audiences in droves. The New Wave revitalised and democratised the industry, leading to startling, indisputably Australian movies being made such as The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) and Sunday Too Far Away (1975). The so-called Ozploitation movement also saw highly individual movies being released, movies such as Alvin Purple (1973) and Inn of the Damned (1975). And there was a further sub-genre of Australian movies dubbed “outback gothic”, where survival in harsh situations or locations were a vital element of the plot or story. And Australia’s first animated movie was released: Marco Polo Jr. Versus the Red Dragon (1972). It seemed at last that there was something for everyone, both at home and abroad.

Australian movie makers also began looking to their own history and began to make forays into the darker moments of its colonial past. Though it wasn’t based on a true story (though it certainly felt like it), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) explored class and social distinctions of the era it depicted through the prism of a girls’ school. Eliza Fraser (1976), though ostensibly a bawdy romp, still had some pertinent things to say about early colonialism and the hardships involved. But one of the most powerful movies to be made during the Seventies, and one that explored themes of Aboriginal exploitation, was the industry’s first determined effort to fully address the issue of the country’s indigenous racism.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith Quad

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) / D: Fred Schepisi / 120m

Cast: Tommy Lewis, Freddy Reynolds, Ray Barrett, Jack Thompson, Angela Punch McGregor, Steve Dodd, Peter Carroll, Ruth Cracknell, Don Crosby, Tim Robertson, Elizabeth Alexander, Peter Sumner

Half-white, half-Australian Jimmie Blacksmith (Lewis) is raised by a benevolent minister, Reverend Neville (Thompson) and his wife. Neville’s belief is that he can foster positive social ambitions in Jimmie by teaching him Christian values and by providing him with an entry into the wider, white society. Jimmie is a hard worker, conscientious and respectful, but this is due to his upbringing with the Nevilles. At the first job he takes on, building fences on a farm, the owner fails to pay Jimmie and his Aboriginal half-brother Mort (Reynolds) the agreed wage, and when Jimmie challenges this he’s then sacked. The same happens to him at the next farm he works at. By this point, Jimmie is beginning to understand that not all whites are like the Nevilles.

Jimmie finds work as a policeman. He accepts the role of law enforcer with equanimity, and has no trouble administering the law when it comes to Aboriginals. But matters change when he witnesses a flagrant abuse of the law he believes in, an abuse that shows him there will always be one rule for whites and no rules for others. Appalled, he leaves the police force and eventually finds work on a sheep ranch owned by a Mr Newby (Crosby). Here he sends for Gilda (McGregor), a woman he met at one of the farms and who has agreed to marry him. When she arrives she is heavily pregnant, but when the baby is born it’s obvious that Jimmie isn’t the father. Newby’s family are less than sympathetic, and take every opportunity to make snide remarks about “his child”. Jimmie makes the best of it, but when a well-meaning acquaintance of the Newby’s suggests that Gilda should take her baby and leave Jimmie, and he’s let go without any pay, the steady tide of oppression that he’s encountered since leaving the Nevilles leads to a shocking, violent outburst that leaves Jimmie, Mort, his uncle Tabidgi (Dodd), and Gilda on the run from the police.

Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, The - scene

Adapted from the novel by Thomas Keneally, itself based on the true story of Jimmy Governor, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is like an unexpected slap across the face, a shocking moment that is made all the worse by the surprise factor. The same can be said about the movie, one that the viewer goes into thinking they know what to expect, but then finds themselves reeling from the ferocity of emotion, violent or otherwise, that they experience. It’s an impressive, extraordinary movie that can still do that nearly forty years after it was first released, and a testament to the vision of Schepisi, and the lead performance of Lewis.

Watching the movie today its bleak and uncompromising nature really is that startling for modern viewers unused to having outrage displayed in such frank and brutal terms, from the casual verbal racism of the whites to the inverse scorn of the Aborigines who feel Jimmie is losing his heritage by associating too closely with whites. In a brave but necessary move, writer/director Schepisi paints a portrait of a time and a society where sympathy and consideration for Australia’s indigenous people was considered anathema, but offers no judgement on either sides feelings or beliefs. With Jimmie’s increasing disillusionment and anger at the attitude of his white employers and the larger, endemic disdain for his race, Schepisi’s uncompromising treatment of the material leaves the audience facing a dilemma: are Jimmie’s actions defensible given his treatment by the whites, or are they too extreme for extenuating circumstances to be taken into consideration or provide mitigation? Whatever your opinion, Schepisi doesn’t make it easy, and nor should he.

It’s refreshing too that the movie doesn’t try to be relevant to the Seventies, or invite the viewer to search for a subtext. This is entirely about the times, and the hardship of life in Australia in the early twentieth century if you weren’t white: it doesn’t need to be about anything else. And Jimmie, as a character, is refreshingly free from the type of psychological interpretation that would no doubt be employed if the movie were to be made today. Lewis is completely convincing in the title role, Jimmie’s sense of belonging to two cultures but without knowing which he should commit to, rendered with such detail and commitment that it’s hard to believe that Lewis had never acted before. It’s an amazing achievement, and with Schepisi, he reinforces the idea that Jimmie can be sympathised with or detested in equal measure.

With the movie proving so intense, it definitely can’t be regarded as entertainment, but it is thought-provoking, consistently tough-minded and hard-hearted, and avoids any undue sentimentality, settling for a discomforting nihilism that suits the mood of the times, and underpins Jimmie’s struggle to fit in. Schepisi left Australia for Hollywood after this, citing the struggles he had to endure to get the movie made, but he’s yet to make another movie on a par with this one. Lewis continued to make movies, but he never played a lead role again. Perhaps it’s fitting for both men as it’s hard to see how either could top The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith for sheer gritty realism and power.

The movie also benefits from measured performances from Thompson, Barrett and McGregor, while there are minor roles for Bryan Brown, John Jarratt, and Arthur Dignam, and surprisingly, Lauren Hutton. It’s shot in a dour, unflattering way by Ian Baker that enhances and embraces the material, but still leaves room to showcase Australia’s natural beauty. And the score by Bruce Smeaton is similarly enriching, adding an emotive layer to the proceedings that complements the bleak narrative.

Rating: 9/10 – desolate and austere in its approach but all the more potent for it, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is the kind of tough, relentlessly savage movie that is rarely this confident or emotionally draining; all credit to Schepisi for refusing to water down the febrile nature of the story, or the tragic consequences that arise from one man’s refusal to be treated so arrogantly.

 

The late Seventies and early Eighties saw a rise in the number of movies that looked at classical stories from Australian literature and history, movies such as My Brilliant Career (1979) and Breaker Morant (1980). International acclaim had been building steadily across the Seventies, with Peter Finch becoming the first Australian actor to win an Oscar (albeit posthumously) for Network (1976), and the Eighties saw Australian movies consolidate and expand on that success. The focus was more on dramatic stories rather than comedies, and several prestige movies garnered awards from around the world. At home, The Man from Snowy River (1982) proved to be such a well-received movie that it was regarded as the best Australian movie of all time (though not for long).

In 1986, a movie arrived that was a comedy, that had been cleverly constructed for international audiences, contained adventure and romance, told a delightful fish out of water story, and made an international star out of its creator, Paul Hogan. The movie was “Crocodile” Dundee, and when it was released in the US (in September ’86), it achieved the distinction of being the second highest grossing movie of the year (losing out to Top Gun). At the time, Hogan stated that he was “planning for it to be Australia’s first proper movie… a real, general public, successful, entertaining movie”. Some may have felt that Hogan was being unfair, but the movie’s success did lead to a sea change in the way that Australian movie makers approached those stories that were essentially Australian in terms of subject matter and cultural reference. As the Eighties drew to a close, and with the industry still enjoying its renaissance, “Crocodile” Dundee‘s example would lead to an even richer period of Australian movie making, and an even stronger presence abroad.

The D Train (2015)

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D Train, The

D: Jarrad Paul, Andrew Mogel / 101m

Cast: Jack Black, James Marsden, Kathryn Hahn, Jeffrey Tambor, Russell Posner, Mike White, Henry Zebrowski, Kyle Bornheimer

Dan Landsman (Black) is the self-styled chairman of his high school reunion committee. He enjoys what limited prestige comes with the position (which isn’t much), but can’t get the respect from his fellow committee members that he thinks he deserves. This is due to his overbearing, self-important approach to organising the reunion, and the fact that he was never popular in high school. As he and the rest of the committee call up their peers and are continually let down, Dan finds a solution in the unlikeliest of places: a Banana Boat commercial. The “star” of the commercial is none other than Oliver Lawless (Marsden), the most popular guy in high school. Dan reasons that if he can get Oliver to attend the reunion, everyone will.

Dan determines that a face-to-face approach is needed, but Oliver lives in L.A., while he lives in Pittsburgh. Under the pretence of going there for an important business meeting, Dan books a flight and gets ready to go. But his boss, Mr Schurmer (Tambor), insists on coming with him to help facilitate the deal that Dan has supposedly set up. Unable to persuade his boss to stay in Pittsburgh, he has no choice but to make it seem as if the deal has fallen through. Dan tracks down Oliver and they spend the night on the town, going from club to club and bar to bar and getting drunk and high. Dan goes back to his hotel room but in the early hours, Oliver, feeling down, pays him a visit. Dan reveals the true reason for his visit, and even tells Oliver about the so-called business deal; Oliver agrees to attend the reunion.

The next morning, Oliver poses as the businessman Dan has been dealing with, but instead of killing the deal as Dan needs him to, he tells Schurmer that it’s a go. Oliver apologises, but tells Dan he can easily put a stop to things when he’s back in Pittsburgh. That night they go out on the town again, but this time they end up back at Oliver’s apartment. To Dan’s surprise, Oliver makes a pass at him. What happens next leaves Dan bewildered and confused. Back home he finds his boss spending lots of money on the business in expectation of the deal going through, his fourteen year old son Zach (Posner) experiencing problems of the heart, and his wife Stacey (Hahn) pleased for him for landing the deal and Oliver’s attendance at the reunion.

But when Oliver arrives for the reunion and stays at Dan’s home, Dan begins behaving erratically, and he starts to alienate his wife and son, and the members of the committee (who don’t like him that much anyway). As the reunion draws nearer, he tries his best to behave normally but the events in L.A. have had a greater impact on him than even he’s aware of. And it’s at the reunion itself that Dan’s behaviour causes the greatest upset as he and Oliver confront each other over what happened, and Dan is left feeling isolated and alone, and wondering what he can do to make things right with the people he cares about.

THE D TRAIN - 2015 FILM STILL - Jack Black (Dan Landsman) and James Marsden (Oliver Lawless) - Photo Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle. An IFC Films release.

Having previously worked on the script for Yes Man (2008), writers/directors Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel have upped their game somewhat for The D Train, and the result is a clever, sometimes very funny comedy drama that gives Black his best role since Bernie (2011) (though to be fair he has only made two other movies in that time). It’s also smart, knowing and occasionally tragic in its look at its main character’s constant need for respect and approbation, and the lengths he’ll go to in order to be acknowledged.

The social misfit is perhaps Black’s niche role (it can only be a matter of time before he plays a serial killer), and as in Bernie he’s uncomfortably comfortable in the role of a man whose social standing is based on his lack of popularity in high school (when we see him calling his fellow alumni not one of them appears to remember him without the benefit of some heavy prompting). Away from the reunion committee he’s in a respected position at work, with his boss happy to defer to Dan’s judgement on matters, while his home life appears secure as well. But it’s his lack of social presence that bothers him, and why he’s never fit in. Meeting Oliver in L.A. reminds him he can be a fun guy, that he can be good company, and more importantly, that those traits have always been inside him; it’s just needed someone of Oliver’s carefree nature to bring them out of him.

But with freedom comes (no, not great responsibility) a complete misunderstanding of the nature of friendship and many of the unspoken rules that go with it. Back in Pittsburgh, Dan displays all the signs of someone who’s been abandoned or had their favourite toy taken away from them; he just doesn’t know how to deal with all the raw feelings he’s experiencing. He overcompensates in the bedroom (not that Stacey minds), but then rudely ignores Zach when he needs some fatherly advice. The situation at work becomes unmanageable, and when Oliver shows himself to be a better father figure, Dan over-reacts and tells him to leave. It’s in these moments when Dan’s insecurities and jealousy of Oliver’s “cool” attitude shows him for the desperately needy person that he is.

Black is superb in the role, and he’s matched by Marsden who portrays Oliver’s shallow lifestyle with a thread of sadness lurking beneath the rampant hedonism. Hahn, who goes from strength to strength with each movie she makes, delivers a polished if largely restrained performance that makes for an effective counterpoint to Black’s anguished social walrus. And Tambor is terrific as Dan’s boss, a confirmed Luddite whose puppy-dog adoption of computers and the Internet contributes to Dan’s downfall.

But while the performances are all above average, and while the basic premise is a sound one given enough room for considered examination, the movie does have its faults, and in the same way that Paul and Mogel’s script is on solid ground when dissecting Dan’s motives and behaviour, it’s less so when it introduces moments and scenes of crass humour. One scene in particular stands out, when Oliver gives Zach advice on how to manage in a threesome. Despite the obvious humour to be had from such a scene, it’s still at odds with the tone of the rest of the movie, and there’s nothing the directors can do to offset the awkwardness of having a man in his late Thirties giving sex advice to a fourteen year old (it’s also strange that the script thinks it’s entirely likely that Zach would ask his dad about such a subject while at the dinner table). And at the reunion, Dan snorts cocaine in the bathroom before being discovered by Jerry (White), one of the committee members. Dan rambles on and Jerry’s surprise at Dan’s behaviour evaporates as quickly as it occurs. And Mr Schurmer’s subdued reaction to the potential loss of his company is meant to be quietly tragic but seems instead to be a case of the script not wanting to follow that particular plot thread any further (the same goes for Stacey’s reaction to the revelation of what happened in L.A.).

D Train, The - scene 2

With the characters routinely involved in scenes that don’t always have a logical follow-on, or betray the emotion of a scene (e.g. when Oliver leaves for L.A. and says goodbye to two of the committee members), the movie tries for hard-edged adult humour too often at the expense of the more important dramatic aspects. While the humour is mostly very funny indeed, a lot of it feels shoe-horned in, as if they were added to the script somewhere in the pre-production phase. As a result the movie feels disjointed at times, and lacks the overall focus afforded the drama, leaving audiences to wonder if the humour is there to provide some relief from the themes of social inequality, self respect, alienation, and personal inadequacy. If it is, then unfortunately the way in which it’s been done lacks authority.

Rating: 7/10 – deficiencies in the script leave The D Train feeling like it’s falling short of its original intentions; Black is on terrific form however, keeping the movie afloat through some of its more unlikely moments, and perfectly judging the pathos needed to avoid Dan being completely unlikeable.

For One Week Only: Australian Cinema – Part III

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Australian Cinema Part III – 1941-1970

With Australia’s entry into the Second World War in 1939, movie production dwindled in support of the war effort. Movies continued to be made but they were few and far between, and were dependent on their producers’ confidence in claiming enough of the domestic and international markets to be worthwhile in making. Cinesound Productions, though they’d stopped making feature length movies, were still making newsreels, and in 1942 they won the Oscar for Best Documentary for their full-length edition of the Cinesound Review entitled Kokoda Front Line! Other, fictional, propaganda movies were made (in keeping with similar efforts made in other countries at war); these included Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940), and The Rats of Tobruk (1944). (Both movies were directed by Charles Chauvel, and ever since 1992, the Brisbane International Film Festival has awarded a Chauvel Award for distinguished contributions to Australian cinema.) But once the war was over, any expected upturn in production failed to materialise, as can be seen by the release of just one movie in 1948, Always Another Dawn.

The Forties did see the emergence of homegrown stars who would go on to have international careers, actors such as Peter Finch (actually born in England) and Chips Rafferty. Rafferty was the star of one of Australia’s finest movies of the Forties, a saga of drovers transporting a large herd of cattle across 1600 miles of inhospitable outback. Produced by Ealing, it was very, very successful at the box office, with an estimated 350,000 Australians having seen it by February 1947, six months after its release.

Overlanders, The

The Overlanders (1946) / D: Harry Watt / 91m

Cast: Chips Rafferty, John Nugent Hayward, Daphne Campbell, Jean Blue, Helen Grieve, John Fernside, Peter Pagan, Frank Ransome, Stan Tolhurst, Clyde Combo, Henry Murdoch

1942. With the threat of invasion by Japanese forces, many Australians feel it’s only a matter of time before they’re overrun. People in the north of the country begin evacuating their homes to head south and burning them in a kind of “scorched earth” policy. One such family are the Parsons: Bill (Hayward), his wife (Blue), and their two daughters, Mary (Campbell) and Helen (Grieve).

Meanwhile, in the Kimberley District of Western Australia, a meat export centre has been directed to pack up its operation and for its men to head south. When the manager (Tolhurst) tells cattle man Dan McAlpine (Rafferty) that the cattle will need to be shot, Dan comes up with an alternative: to drive the cattle – all 958 of them – overland to Queensland, a distance of 1500 miles. He manages to enlist some of his co-workers to help him, including a sailor, Sinbad (Pagan) a couple of aborigines, Jacky (Combo) and Nipper (Murdoch), and generally work-shy Corky (Fernside). As they make plans to set out, the Parsons’ join them.

At first, the drove is slow going. A couple of months pass of fairly easy travel before they reach the North-South Road, but a week later they encounter the first obstacle to reaching the East Coast, a crocodile-infested river that they need to cross. The crossing goes well with no loss of cattle, but on the other side the drove finds its second obstacle, scrubland that gives the cattle little to feed on; this also slows them down to making only five miles a day instead of an average ten or twelve. A little while later, a tragedy leaves them short of horses, but salvation proves to be at hand (and close by) in the form of a group of brumbies (wild horses). They trap and break enough of them to allow the drove to continue on, and soon they arrive at an outpost, Anthony’s Lagoon where they get fresh supplies.

The next leg of the drove proves even harder, with no surface water or much feed for the cattle, but all goes well though tempers are frayed due to the conditions. When they reach the Queensland border they have to stop so that the cattle can be inoculated. While this is done, Corky reveals his plans following the war to set up a company for the exploitation of land and mineral rights in the Northern Territory, a plan Dan is none too happy to hear about. That same night, Sinbad and Mary reveal their feelings for each other, and the cattle are spooked, causing a stampede. In the attempt to halt them, Sinbad is badly injured; Mary tries to alert the inoculation team who are leaving on the plane that brought them there, but they take off before she can reach them.

With no other option open to them, Sinbad is put on the back of the supply wagon and Mrs Parsons and Helen leave the drove to take him to the nearest place with a wireless that can summon the flying doctor. The drove then faces another setback at the next watering hole which is dry. Needing to water the cattle in the next two days or face losing them all, Dan must take a risk in taking them over a range of rocky hills along a track more suited for goats than cattle.

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Though shot in black and white, The Overlanders was the first Australian movie to be filmed almost entirely outdoors. This allowed the makers to shoot some of the most rugged and breathtaking scenery in the country’s northern states, as well as providing audiences with a realistic look at a cattle drove and the problems it might face. It was based on an actual event that occurred in 1942 where 100,000 cattle were driven 2,000 miles to avoid the (expected) Japanese invasion. Although the movie had to scale back those numbers out of necessity – though 958 is quoted as the number of cattle on the drove, Ealing only used 500 – it’s still an impressive looking sight, especially when the drove is seen from a distance.

The sheer physical effort involved in bringing the movie to the screen is impressive, with the river crossing a particular highlight. The cast look the part too (though Pagan’s hairstyle marks him out as the matinee idol in the making), with Rafferty looking so at home in the saddle, and giving such a natural performance it’s no surprise that Ealing signed him to a long-term contract before the movie was even released. He’s possibly the quintessential pre-1970’s Australian actor, honest, as rugged as the country around him, and refreshingly no-nonsense in his approach to the art of acting. He’s an actor for whom a false note would be impossible, and here his condemnation of the plan to exploit the Northern Territory’s resources shows an impassioned side that is as plainly felt as it is expressed.

With the movie’s verisimilitude firmly in place and the location photography adding to the effectiveness of the overall drama, writer/director Watt’s decision to spend around eighteen months preparing the movie paid off handsomely (he even spent 1944 following the route of the original drove). His script is one of the most succinct and straightforward of the period, and is so lean it feels effortless in its construction. His original ending was more cynical than the one used but it wouldn’t have felt out of place; underneath all the belated pro-Australian war effort propaganda, there’s an undeniable sense that the country was on the cusp of some profound and far-reaching changes.

The movie does start out a little slowly, but sets out its stall with a minimum of fuss, and while the first hour sees everything go well, the inevitable setbacks and life-threatening situations make the movie more gripping, although in a matter-of-fact way that, weirdly, is entirely apposite. It speaks to the Aussie mentality of “let’s just get it done”, and shows the characters almost welcoming the adversity as a way of proving either their manhood (if male) or their unspoken capability (if female). Mary is congratulated on heading off the stampede, but she shrugs it off as no more appropriate than if she’d made dinner for everyone, so confident is she in her own abilities. It’s a small, neat touch that says everything you need to know about the characters’ inner strengths, and not just Mary’s, as they’re all so attuned to what they’re doing (and even if Corky is looking much further ahead than the others).

There’s a rousing score by English composer John Ireland that manages to be evocative at the same time, and the photography, so ravishing to look at, comes courtesy of Osmond Borradaile, a Canadian whose experience in shooting location footage more than justified Watt’s decision to hire him. And though Watt was unhappy with the way Inman Hunter edited the movie and brought in Leslie Norman to take over, whatever the final percentage of each man’s work, the movie is seamless and the decision doesn’t show in the finished product. And you have to admire a movie that includes the line, “bullocks are more important than bullets”.

Rating: 9/10 – an engrossing, simply told tale that highlights the strengths of the Australian movie industry at the time, The Overlanders is a tribute to both the men and women who lived through the threat of Japanese occupation and did their best to live outside the shadow of that dreadful possibility; with the Australian outback looking both daunting and alluring, it’s a movie that celebrates the country and its people’s apparently unflagging fortitude, and does so in such a skilful way that it stays in the memory long after it’s seen.

Overlanders, The - scene 2

In the Fifties, Australia became the place to make movies if you were a foreign production company (such as Ealing). But there was a degree of irony attached to this development, as movie makers from around the world came to Australia to make movies that depicted Australian life and culture, or were adaptations of Australian stories or literature. Chief amongst these were the likes of A Town Like Alice (1956) and The Shiralee (1957), but while they were made in Australia, they weren’t Australian movies; they were made by British or American companies and so were British or American movies. One movie made in the Fifties that was wholeheartedly Australian, funding and all, was Jedda (1955), notable for being the first Australian movie shot in colour, and for its casting of two Aboriginal actors – Ngarla Kunoth and Robert Tudawali – in the lead roles (it was also the last movie to be directed by Charles Chauvel).

Elsewhere though, indigenous movie making was struggling to make any kind of an impact. Robbery Under Arms (1957) was an exception, but otherwise there were few production companies that were willing or able to make movies that would have bolstered the industry’s standing, or made any headway at the box office. In 1958, the Australian Film Institute was founded, its mission to promote the industry both at home and abroad. The Institute also set up the annual AFI Awards which were designed in part to “improve the impoverished state of Australian cinema”. That first year there were seven categories: Documentary, Educational, Advertising, Experimental Film, Public Relations, and an Open category for any movie that didn’t fit any of the other criteria. Such was the parlous state of the industry at the time – and on into the Sixties – that it wasn’t until 1969 and Jack and Jill: A Postscript that a feature movie was given an award.

The Sixties began with a rare fillip for the industry in the form of Fred Zinnemann’s The Sundowners (1960), but it was a US/UK/Australian production, and without Zinnemann’s passion for the project, unlikely to have been made under other circumstances. The situation worsened as the decade continued. Clay (1965) was entered for the Palm Award at the Cannes Film Festival, but again this was a rare event that provided a momentary boost for an otherwise moribund industry. Even They’re a Weird Mob (1966), directed by Michael Powell, and featuring familiar faces such as Chips Rafferty, Ed Devereaux, John Meillon and Clare Dunne, couldn’t do much to stem the tide of inertia (though some say it was an inspiration to the generation of movie makers who would follow in the Seventies). (Look closely and you can see Jeanie Drynan and Jacki Weaver in early roles.)

Powell would return to Australia to make Age of Consent (1969) but as the decade drew to an end there was no sign that the movie industry was going anywhere but as steadily downhill as it had been since the late Forties.

Yvonne Craig – A Surprising Career

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Yvonne Craig, who sadly passed away on 17 August 2015, will always be remembered for her role as Barbara Gordon aka Batgirl in the Sixties TV version of Batman. She made the role her own, and while the planned Batgirl series never materialised, Craig was a bright, funny, attractive addition to the cast, and over the course of two seasons and twenty-six episodes, more than held her own against the series’ more established stars.

Yvonne Craig 1

Looking over her career, though, reveals a surprising number of appearances in well-known, well-regarded and very popular US TV shows. Between 1958 when she made her first appearance in an episode of Schlitz Playhouse, to the animated series Olivia (2009-2011), Craig has appeared in so many of these shows that the term “abundance of riches” could be applied, and without any sense of irony. Here then are just some of the appearances she made in a career that spanned over fifty years.

Perry Mason (1958). The Jim Backus Show (1961). The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-1962, playing six different roles). 77 Sunset Strip (1960-1964, playing four different roles). Wagon Train (1964). Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964). McHale’s Navy (1965). The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1965). My Favorite Martian (1965). The Wild Wild West (1966). It Takes a Thief (1968). Mod Squad (1968). Star Trek (1969, the episode Whom Gods Destroy). Land of the Giants (1970). The Magician (1973). Kojak (1973). The Six Million Dollar Man (1977). Starsky and Hutch (1979). Fantasy Island (1983).

Yvonne Craig 2

Oh! the Horror! – Harbinger Down (2015) and Charlie’s Farm (2014)

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Both movies under review here have something in common: they take an old school approach to special effects, forsaking CGI for practical make up and/or prosthetic effects. It’s an approach that had its heyday in the Eighties and early Nineties, but recently aficionados of this kind of “low-tech” way of movie making have made movies that celebrate all things rubbery, slimy and blood-drenched. Here are two such movies that employ rubber tubing and gruesome make up to splendidly gory effect.

Harbinger Down

Harbinger Down (2015) / D: Alec Gillis / 82m

Cast: Lance Henriksen, Camille Balsamo, Matt Winston, Reid Collums, Winston James Francis, Milla Bjorn, Giovonnie Samuels

On a crabbing trip to the Bering Sea, the ship Harbinger and its captain, Graff (Henriksen), play host to a group of research students looking into how global warming is affecting a pod of Beluga whales. Among the students is Graff’s granddaughter, Sadie (Balsamo). When she spots something in the ice, the crew haul it aboard. It turns out to be a Soviet space capsule with an astronaut remarkably well preserved inside. The capsule also contains tardigrades, micro-animals that can withstand extremes of temperature and the vacuum of space. Sadie does some tests on the tardigrades and discovers that they’ve been exposed to some sort of radiation and are now capable of mutating into any living form they come into contact with.

When the research group’s leader, Stephen (Winston) attempts to claim the capsule and its contents as space salvage, the astronaut’s disappearance further inflames his desire to receive the credit for its discovery. But as Sadie has surmised, the tardigrades are assimilating their new human hosts, and all thoughts of salvage rights and personal glory are abandoned when the first of them falls victim to the tardigrades’ capability for mutating. As one by one the research group and the crew fall victim to the creature that is growing on board the ship, loyalties are tested, secrets are revealed, and a desperate fight for survival ensues.

Harbinger Down - scene

When the makers of The Thing (2011) decided to overlay CGI effects on the already filmed practical effects that represented the titular organism, the company that created those practical effects, ADI, decided that they would provide audiences with the chance to see their original designs and effects in another movie altogether. The result is Harbinger Down, and while their efforts are to be applauded, the finished product isn’t as impressive or persuasive as they may have hoped. Part of the reason for this can be laid at the door of the budget (part of which was funded by Kickstarter contributions), but mostly it’s down to Alec Gillis’s poorly constructed screenplay and sloppy direction. He may be a whiz when it comes to creating suitably fantastic and icky creatures, but away from his usual environment, the cracks soon show and once they do, the movie never recovers.

Considering that this is strictly speaking a reworking of both the 1982 and 2011 versions of The Thing, and Gillis is such an aforementioned whiz at the creature side of things, it’s dismaying to report that this particular incarnation is saddled with some really awkward dialogue (of the George Lucas variety*), characters that scream deliberate stereotype, situations that lack any tension or drama, performances that give new meaning to the term “barely adequate”, and worst of all, creature effects that are often shot in half light or obscured by rapid editing, leaving them on nodding terms with the words “unimpressive” and “dull”. It’s a shallow exercise in showing viewers how it should be done, and as hubristic a movie as you’re likely to see all year.

Rating: 3/10 – with long stretches that challenge the viewer to remain interested, Harbinger Down improves when Henriksen is on screen but flounders everywhere else; some Kickstarter investors may want to think about asking for their money back before it’s too late.

Charlie's Farm

Charlie’s Farm (2014) / D: Chris Sun / 93m

Cast: Tara Reid, Nathan Jones, Allira Jaques, Bill Moseley, Kane Hodder, Dean Kirkright,  Sam Coward, Genna Chanelle Hayes, David Beamish, Trudi Ross, Robert J. Mussett

Four friends – couple Natasha (Reid) and Jason (Kirkright), and singles Mick aka Donkey (Coward) and Melanie (Jaques) – agree to take a trip into the Outback in search of Charlie’s Farm, the site of several gruesome murders that were carried out by the Wilsons (Moseley, Ross) over thirty years ago. Legend has it that even though the Wilsons were killed by the local townsfolk, their retarded son Charlie got away and hasn’t been seen since… and may be the cause of a recent spate of disappearances involving backpackers and people curious enough to visit the farm and check out its tarnished history. When the group need directions they ask in a local bar but are told in no uncertain terms not to go to Charlie’s farm; Jason, who wants to go more than anyone else, eventually talks to his friend Tony (Hodder) who tells him the same thing before telling him where they need to head to.

When they finally reach the farm they’re unsurprised to find it’s rundown and uninhabited. They’re joined by another couple, Alyssa (Hayes) and Gordon (Beamish). They all spend the night, which proves uneventful, though Melanie thinks she saw someone when she woke briefly, but she can’t be sure if she was dreaming or not. Planning to leave the next day, Jason suggests they all split up into twos and explore the surrounding farmland. Alyssa and Gordon investigate an old equipment shed, Mick and Melanie end up taking a dip in the river, while Jason and Natasha’s roaming takes them, eventually, to the same equipment shed. It’s Alyssa and Gordon who are the first to discover that the legend is real, and that Charlie (Jones) is still alive, only now he’s a seven-foot brute of a killing machine, and intent on picking everyone off one by one.

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An Aussie slasher movie in the mould of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and Hatchet (both 2006, and both featuring Kane Hodder), Charlie’s Farm builds its basic premise from the ground up by introducing its main characters and the murderously insane Wilsons in the movie’s slow-paced first half, and then allows itself to cut loose with some brutally effective killings courtesy of Charlie and various sharp implements (though he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty either). But while those movies had a rude, somewhat grimy atmosphere about them, Chris Sun’s third feature is yet another example – sadly – of how imitation doesn’t yield the same results, and rather than providing solid entertainment, adds yet one more disappointment to the list of cheap and nasty horror movies that get released each year.

The movie isn’t helped by many of the same things that hamper Harbinger Down, namely some awful dialogue, performances that are barely adequate (Kirkright is the worst offender), and situations that lack tension or drama (or both). Sun’s script also goes off on too many tangents, such as the bed that Alyssa and Gordon argue about, Melanie’s being unaware of many things that everyone else knows about (“Who’s Charles Manson?”), and the clumsy, laughable way in which Hodder is shoehorned into proceedings, and just so he can try and box his way to defeating Charlie (yes, you read that right: by boxing). Thankfully, the killings are much better than the rest of the movie and are genuinely impressive, with one character having their jaw ripped off, while another suffers death by penis (not a phrase you see too often in any movie review, let alone a horror movie review).

Rating: 4/10 – derivative and long-winded during the first hour, Charlie’s Farm pulls out all the stops for its kill scenes, and shows what Sun can do when he’s not trying to present ordinary people in an extraordinary situation; however, it lacks an ending, and while nihilism in horror movies isn’t exactly unheard of, this particular example smacks of its writer/director running out of ideas at the eighty-five minute mark.

Mini-Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

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Man from U.N.C.L.E., The

D: Guy Ritchie / 116m

Cast: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Luca Calvani, Sylvester Groth, Hugh Grant, Jared Harris, Christian Berkel, Misha Kuznetsov

Following his rescue of a scientist’s daughter, Gaby Teller (Vikander) from East Berlin, CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Cavill) is told by his boss (Harris) that he has a new partner: the KGB agent who tried to stop him, Ilya Kuryakin (Hammer). Gaby’s father, Udo (Berkel), is building an atom bomb that’s intended for a hidden Nazi group. Her Uncle Rudi (Groth) is suspected of knowing where he is. Solo and Kuryakin must take Gaby to Rome where evidence points to the involvement of the Alexanders (Calvani, Debicki). While Solo poses as an antiquities dealer, Kuryakin poses as Gaby’s fiancé. Solo and Kuryakin attend a party given by Victoria Alexander where they discover evidence that the atom bomb (and Udo) must be nearby. That night they both break in to the Alexanders’ factory where they find further evidence of Udo’s work.

Solo meets with Victoria but she drugs his drink. When he wakes he finds himself strapped to a chair and about to be tortured by Uncle Rudi who turns out to be an evil Nazi scientist. With Kuryakin’s aid he escapes, while Gaby is taken to an island where her father is putting the finishing touches to the bomb. It’s at this point that Solo and Kuryakin are introduced to Commander Waverly (Grant), a member of British intelligence. He fills them in on some information that’s been held back from them, and reveals a plan to infiltrate the island, seize the atom bomb, and rescue Gaby and her father. But the Alexanders have an ace up their sleeve…

Man from U.N.C.L.E., The - scene

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (on the big screen at least) has been a long time coming. But up until the recent involvement of Ritchie and his producing partner Lionel Wigram, every attempt to make a movie version of the classic 60’s TV show has stalled, often before it’s even cleared the gate. Coming off two very successful Sherlock Holmes movies, Ritchie has clearly been given as much leeway as he needs in order to bring this movie to audiences, and while he uses many of the stylistic shooting techniques he used on the Holmes movies, what he’s failed to do is come up with a story that is either exciting or engrossing. It’s a shame as the potential is there for another successful franchise, but aside from a splendidly retro feel for the era, the movie lacks the kind of impact that would lift it out of the bin marked “ordinary”.

Things aren’t helped by the casting of Cavill and Hammer, two averagely effective actors who lack the subtlety required to make Solo and Kuryakin anything more than grudging partners. Sure it’s an origin story so the animosity is understandable, but they’re also highly skilled professionals, the best at what they do; so why make Solo a preening plank, or Kuryakin a headstrong liability? It’s a curious decision, to make your two leading men so unrelatable, but Ritchie’s gone with it completely, and the movie suffers appropriately. Thankfully, the same can’t be said of Vikander and Debicki, who save the movie from being too much of a debacle, and the involvement of Grant, who seems to be having the most fun he’s had in years. If there is to be a sequel – and at the moment the movie’s performance at the box office seems to indicate there won’t be – then a serious rethink is in order.

Rating: 5/10 – not as bad as it could have been, but also not as good as it should have been, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. lacks energy and limps uneasily from scene to scene in search of a consistently entertaining tone that it doesn’t find; a pleasant enough diversion if you’re in the mood, but definitely not a movie to expect too much from.

Trailer – Victor Frankenstein (2015)

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A reworking of Mary Shelley’s classic tale, Victor Frankenstein has long been touted as a story that concentrates on the relationship between the titular scientist (James McAvoy) and his assistant Igor (Daniel Radcliffe). It sounded like an interesting premise, and with the two stars firmly committed to the project, hopes have been high that this version will show audiences a new, different take on what is now a very familiar story. But this first trailer raises a variety of concerns, not least in that the relationship so focused on during production seems to have been over-emphasised (there’s certainly no glimpse of it in the trailer), and there are too many occasions where McAvoy seems to be cracking one-liners. Whether or not this version proves to be a stylish, thought-provoking addition to the ranks of Frankenstein movies, or something that sits uncomfortably close to Mel Brooks’ brilliant homage remains to be seen, but on this evidence there’s very much room for concern (and the introduction doesn’t help either).

For One Week Only: Australian Cinema – Part II

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Australian Cinema Part II – 1921-1940

At the beginning of the 1920’s, the Australian movie industry was facing new challenges following the aftermath of World War I. Back in 1912, production companies had merged to form the Australasian Films and Union Theaters, a body which effectively controlled which movies were shown and where. However, it soon became apparent to distributors that there was a decreasing market for Australian movies, a belief that was exacerbated by the relatively cheap cost of importing, say, American movies that had already recouped their budgets in their home market. With local movies being passed over in favour of these imports, the industry began to dwindle. By 1923 this meant that 94% of all movies shown in Australia were American imports.

Movies did continue to be made though, and directors such as Raymond Longford and Beaumont Smith maintained their own standards against the influx of American product. Longford made several well-received movies during the early Twenties, including The Blue Mountains Mystery (1921) and The Dinkum Bloke (1923), but with the death of Lottie Lyell in 1925 his career began to flounder and he never regained the status he’d had in the 1910’s. Beaumont Smith made comedies, quickly and cheaply produced, and this practice earned him the nickname “One Shot Beau”. He too made several movies during the early Twenties, including While the Billy Boils (1921) and The Digger Earl (1924), but like Longford his career began to flounder and he retired officially in 1925 thanks to dwindling profits.

With the US continuing to dominate the market, especially in terms of the emerging “talkies”, Australian movie production maintained a reasonable level but not every movie was as successfully received as they had been in the past. New movie makers arrived on the scene, writer/directors such as Norman Dawn and Paulette McDonagh, and though they too faced an uphill battle to make an impact (or a profit) with their movies, nevertheless they succeeded. Dawn made one of the most impressive Australian movies of the late Twenties, the historical drama For the Term of His Natural Life (1927), yet another movie that showed Australia was just as capable as Hollywood of producing intelligent and compelling movies.

For the Term of His Natural Life

For the Term of His Natural Life (1927) / D: Norman Dawn / 102m

Cast: George Fisher, Eva Novak, Dunstan Webb, Jessica Harcourt, Arthur McLaglen, Katherine Dawn, Gerald Kay Souper, Marion Marcus Clarke, Arthur Tauchert, Mayne Lynton, Compton Coutts

1827, England. A row between Sir Richard Devine and his wife Ellinor (Clarke) leads to the revelation that their son, also Richard (Fisher), is illegitimate and the result of a brief affair with Lord Bellasis. Sir Richard banishes his son, while at the same time Lord Bellasis has an argument with his son, known as John Rex (also Fisher) that leads to John killing his father. Richard chances upon the body but is discovered by some of Lord Bellasis’s men. Accused of his murder, but thinking that Sir Richard has committed it, he remains silent (and helps to keep his mother’s shame from being exposed as well). He gives his name as Rufus Dawes and allows himself to be tried and sentenced to life imprisonment in a penal colony in Australia.

On the voyage a mutiny is organised by none other than John Rex, with the aid of his fiancée, Sarah Purfoy (Harcourt). Purfoy is travelling as nurse to the daughter of the new governor, Major Vickers (Souper) and his wife (Dawn). Rufus overhears the plans for the mutiny and alerts the crew. The mutiny is foiled but the mutineers guess that Rufus informed on them, and they have their revenge by claiming he was the leader. When the ship reaches Macquarie Harbour, Rufus is left in isolation on a nearby island.

Six years pass. The governor’s daughter, Sylvia (Novak) has grown into a beautiful young woman, and has attracted the attention of Captain Frere (Webb). Frere was in command of the penal ship that brought them all to Australia; his distrust of the convicts has made him cruel and merciless. His arrival at the harbour is to inform Major Vickers that he is to decamp to Port Arthur, along with all the convicts. This coincides with Rufus’s decision to end his life by jumping off a high cliff on his island; however, he survives. Meanwhile, Vickers travels with the prisoners on one ship while his wife and daughter, accompanied by Frere, travel on a second ship. This ship is hijacked by Rex and the trio are left on a beach, witjhout supplies, to fend for themselves. Rufus is washed ashore and sets about trying to return them all to the governor. He builds a makeshift boat and they set off, but not before Sylvia’s mother succumbs to a fever. It’s all too much for the young woman, and by the time they’re rescued, Sylvia also has a fever, but one that robs her of the memories of what has happened. Frere takes advantage of this and has Rufus re-imprisoned, and takes the credit for their being alive.

Years pass. Frere and Sylvia are due to be married, while Rex has been apprehended and is to be tried and expected to hang. Purfoy reappears and blackmails Frere into getting his sentence reduced. At the trial Rufus is called to testify, but when it becomes clear that Sylvia doesn’t recognise him, his accusations against Frere go unheeded. With his life spared, Rex plans another escape and asks Rufus to go with him. Rufus declines the offer but asks Rex to take a letter home to his mother. The escape plan is a success, and with Purefoy’s help, Rex gets to Sydney, whereupon he reads Rufus’s letter and discover the truth about their relationship. Realising that this is the reason why they look so much alike, Rex determines to go to England and impersonate Rufus and live his life in the way he’s always wanted…

For the Term of His Natural Life - scene

Based on the novel by Marcus Clarke, and previously adapted for the screen in 1908 and 1911, For the Term of His Natural Life is the most expensive Australian silent movie ever made, and also one of the most gripping. Its tale of doppelgängers, murder, mutinies, dangerous convicts, a scheming captain, a young woman in peril, the twin burdens of shame and regret – all combine to make a movie that grips from beginning to end, and it’s a movie that’s so well filmed for the time that it makes some modern day movies look amateurish in comparison.

The budget aside, Dawn’s adaptation aims high and rarely falls short, capturing the agony and despair of the convicts’ lives and the conditions they’re forced to live in. In this sense the movie doesn’t pull any punches, and as a record of the period it’s remarkably faithful, with the makers’ decision to film in the actual locations depicted adding to the credibility of the outdoor scenes (the Inca, an old sailing ship, was renovated and used for the scenes in Sydney harbour). With such an effort made to make the background as realistic as possible, and with exact copies of contemporary clothing made as well, Dawn’s grounding of the narrative pays off in dividends. It’s like looking through a window into the past.

Dawn is aided immeasurably by his cast, with Fisher a standout as the anguished Rufus and the malicious Rex. The viewer is never in any doubt as to which character is on screen, and even though there are few scenes where the two characters interact, it’s a testament to the efforts of DoP’s Len Roos, John William Trerise and Bert Cross that when they do it’s as seamlessly as possible. Of the two characters, Rufus is the more sympathetic (as you’d expect), but Fisher makes sure Rex’s dastardly behaviour isn’t entirely objectionable. It’s a delicate process, but you only have to look to the scene where his relationship to Rufus is revealed to see the desperate need to be accepted that has driven Rex onwards.

Novak is exquisitely lovely as Sylvia, and displays her character’s amnesia with aplomb, keeping her expressions natural and free from hysteria (or the declamatory style of acting that still afflicted some silent movies of the era). As the cowardly, villainous Frere, Webb is eminently hissable, while Harcourt, formerly a fashion model, is entirely convincing as Purfoy, using her feminine wiles to good effect as she charms and entices a variety of the male characters into doing what she wants. In smaller roles, The Sentimental Bloke‘s Tauchert pops up as a prison warden, while Dawn’s wife, Katherine has a touching death scene as Sylvia’s mother (she was also the movie’s editor).

There’s enough here to make a mini-series, but Dawn apportions the appropriate time needed for each scene and development of the storyline, so that no scene outstays its welcome or feels truncated. There’s a natural rhythm and flow to the narrative, and Dawn handles the crises and lulls with equal attention and commitment. In fact, so confident is he with the material that, when it’s over, you don’t realise just how quickly it’s all happened… and how rewarding it’s all been.

Rating: 9/10 – some very minor quibbles aside – such as Coutts eyeball-rolling performance, or an unnecessary reference to a secondary character’s claims of cannibalism – For the Term of His Natural Life is an exciting, character-driven historical drama that succeeds by virtue of its cast and crew’s commitment to the overall tale; one to be seen both for its confident, considered approach and its exacting take on both the material and the period evoked.

Movies such as For the Term of His Natural Life weren’t common however, and as the Twenties drew to a close, movie production resumed a more familiar pattern of homegrown comedies such as the Dad and Dave series along with turgid dramas such as Tiger Island (1930). It was in 1930 that exhibitor F.W. Thring established Efftee Studios in Melbourne, a production company that made the first Australian talkies, movies such as Diggers (1931), The Haunted Barn (1931), and the generally well received remake of The Sentimental Bloke (1932). But with the Australian government refusing to implement quotas for Australian movies it was difficult for any studio or production company to make a profit, and in 1935 Thring was forced to cease making movies; it was estimated he lost A$75,000 of his own money.

Another movie company, Cinesound Productions was more successful, making seventeen features between 1932 and 1940. Cinesound based their productions on the American model and promoted them well enough that each feature either broke even or made a profit. But while other movies continued to be made independently – e.g. In the Wake of the Bounty (1933), which introduced the world to Errol Flynn – the decline that had begun in the Twenties continued unabated. As fewer movies were made each year, and were less and less profitable, the Australian movie industry was dealt a further blow when the UK decided that Australian movies would no longer be included in the local movie quota, thus causing the loss of a previously guaranteed market.

In the Wake of the Bounty

As the Thirties drew to a close with World War II looming on the horizon, the industry began to implement a kind of self-imposed shutdown, recognising that feature length movies would prove too costly to make in the new economic climate. But the future was already uncertain, and though the War did have an impact on movie production, a break was perhaps just what the industry needed.

For One Week Only: Australian Cinema – Part I

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Australian Cinema Part I – 1896-1920

The first cinema presentation in Australia happened in October 1896 at the Athanaeum Hall in Melbourne. It was a short movie (of course), but while Australia and other movie producing countries around the world continued to make and show short movies, it was Australia that would produce the first full-length feature: The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906). Running for approximately sixty minutes, it was directed by Charles Tait, a concert, movie and theatrical entrepreneur, and featured several of his family in key roles. It was a major success, and was shown in New Zealand, Ireland and the UK (alas, only seventeen minutes of footage still survives).

Story of the Kelly Gang, The - scene

While the Athanaeum Hall continued to show movies, Melbourne was also the home of one of the world’s first movie studios, the Limelight Department, which was in use between 1897 and 1910 (and was overseen by the Salvation Army). It made a variety of movies of varying lengths, some three hundred in all, and was, for its time, the biggest producer of movies worldwide. It was responsible for a number of firsts: first feature length documentary, Inauguration of the Commonwealth (1901); first bushranging drama, Bushranging in North Queensland (1904); and first movie combining moving images, glass slides, oratory and music, Soldiers of the Cross (1900). As the Australian movie industry took off, the ensuing boom years of the 1910’s saw the industry flourish, with directors such as John Gavin, Alfred Roche, E.I. Cole and W.J. Lincoln leading the way (and even though some of their efforts may not have been as good as they’d hoped).

In 1911, first-time director Raymond Longford made The Fatal Wedding, a melodrama that proved to be a huge success and which was well received critically. It was also the first Australian movie to claim two particular innovations: that it was the first to use interior sets, and that it featured the first ever close-up. Whether or not this is actually true, it reinforces the view that Australia – despite its distance from the rest of the world’s movie-making community – was forging ahead with new ideas and was creating a robust, popular industry that was the equal of the US, Italy and the UK in terms of movie production and exhibition.

As the decade wore on, more and more movies were made and released, including The Sundowner (1911), Transported (1913), The Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell (1916), Australia’s Peril (1917), and the interestingly titled Does the Jazz Lead to Destruction (1919), but most titles are now considered lost. One movie that has survived, and was the subject of a restoration project in the early 2000’s, is Raymond Longford’s The Sentimental Bloke (1919), viewed as one of the best Australian movies of all time, and based on the poem The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke by C.J. Dennis. Here is a testament to the impressive development of the Australian movie industry, and an example of how advanced this island continent had become.

Sentimental Bloke, The

The Sentimental Bloke (1919) / D: Raymond Longford / 68m

Cast: Arthur Tauchert, Lottie Lyell, Gilbert Emery, Stanley Robinson, Harry Young, Margaret Reid, Charles Keegan, William Coulter, Helen Fergus, C.J. Dennis

Bill (Tauchert) is a larrikin, an uncultivated, mischievous man who behaves as if social conventions don’t apply to him. He drinks – usually with his best friend, Ginger Mick (Emery), and he gambles as well. When he’s caught in a raid on a gambling den, he’s sentenced to six months in gaol. When he gets out he vows to himself that he’ll give up his old life and walk the straight and narrow. He finds work at a market and avoids his old friends. One day he spies a young woman (Lyell) and is instantly smitten with her. But when he approaches her, and uses his usual slang terms to impress her, she rebuffs him. Chastened, and aware that he needs to improve his manners, Bill determines that if she should meet her again he will behave more responsibly.

He learns that the young woman is called Doreen and that she works in a pickle factory, putting labels on the bottles. Through a friend who works there also, Bill arranges a meeting with her, and putting aside his usual way of talking, he shows her that he’s not as bad as she thought previously. They begin seeing each other, but when another man Bill calls the Stror ‘at Coot (Young) starts to pay attention to Doreen as well, his natural belligerence and anger cause him to warn the man off. However, the Stror ‘at Coot persists in seeing Doreen until Bill gets violent with him, a situation that Doreen is unhappy about.

Knowing he’s skating on thin ice, but confused that defending his true love appears to be wrong, Bill assures Doreen that he will try harder. Eventually, after Bill has satisfied the concerns of Doreen’s mother (Reid), they marry and settle down together in their own home. But a chance encounter one night with Ginger Mick leads to Bill lapsing back into his old ways. He gambles away his money, and when he finally gets home in the early hours of the morning, he expects to be chastised for his foolishness. But the next morning brings a surprise, one that allows the couple to move on with their lives and in the fullness of time, to find peace and happiness.

Sentimental Bloke, The - scene

A huge success on its release, The Sentimental Bloke plays like a cross between Charles Dickens and an early Australian soap opera. It’s a charming, easily likeable movie, with a good central performance from Tauchert (who’d only made a couple of short movies before this), and tells its story in a direct, no frills way that makes it all the more enjoyable. In adapting Dennis’s work, Longford and his real life partner Lyell have kept the heart and soul of the poet’s work and translated it to the screen with surprising ease, even to the point of using Dennis’s prose for the intertitles (though some viewers may be put off by the use of colloquialisms and Aussie slang terms).

There’s much to admire, from Tauchert’s naturalistic interpretation of Bill, to Lyell’s considered portrayal of Doreen. Their scenes together reflect Longford’s decision to eschew the usual melodramatic excesses of silent movie acting, and opt for a more realistic approach, leaving Bill and Doreen resembling people that audiences could actually identify with. Tauchert has a wonderfully expressive face (especially when Bill is showing confusion), and Lyell matches him with several moments of pained acceptance, as Doreen’s love for Bill wins out over her reservations about his behaviour. (Sadly, Lyell, who was very very talented, and regarded as Australia’s first movie star, died in 1925 from tuberculosis.) Elsewhere, Emery and Reid provide solid support, but Longford keeps the focus on Bill and Doreen, and rightly so. Their relationship, with its ups and downs and unwavering commitment to each other, is shown without the need for undue or unnecessary emphasis, and is all the more effective for it.

What arises from all this is a great deal of humour to offset the pathos and muted drama. A highlight is a visit to the theatre to see a production of Romeo and Juliet (not something that Bill is too keen on at first). As the couple become wrapped up in the tragedy of Shakespeare’s young lovers, each twist and turn of the story sees them more and more emotionally invested, until the moment when Romeo slays Tybalt and Bill shouts out “Put in the boot!” The movie is stuffed with winning moments like that one, and each adds to the richness of the material.

The movie is also beautifully shot by Arthur Higgins. He was the DoP on The Fatal Wedding, and would work on this movie’s sequel, Ginger Mick (1920). He shows a firm grasp of lighting and composition, and the outdoor sequences have a freshness and vitality about them that few other cinematographers of the period could manage to achieve. It’s a shame that so many of the other movies he shot have since been lost – on this evidence he was exceptionally talented and deserves to be more widely known.

Following its release, The Sentimental Bloke was a success in the UK and Ireland, but not in the US because Dennis’s prose was found to be too difficult to understand. Despite the movie being recut and the intertitles changed, and being called The Story of a Tough Guy, it was quickly withdrawn from distribution. In the Fifties, a fire at a Melbourne movie library resulted in the destruction of all but two boxes of movie negatives. Fortunately, The Sentimental Bloke was saved, and following a transfer of the 35mm nitrate positive to 16mm acetate stock, it was shown to great acclaim at the 1955 Sydney Film Festival (ironically, Longford wasn’t invited to attend as the organisers were unaware he was still alive; he died in 1959).

But that wasn’t the end of the movie’s journey. In 1973 an original 35mm negative was discovered at a Film Archive in Rochester, New York. Even though it was a copy of the American version, the quality was better than any Australian copies (it had also been mislabelled The Sentimental Blonde). And in 2000, Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive embarked on a restoration project that included restoring the original colour tinting as much as possible. The results were shown at the 2004 Sydney Film Festival to further acclaim, proving that Longford and Lyell’s efforts all those years ago will continue to be appreciated – and rightly so.

Rating: 9/10 – a bona fide classic that still stands the test of time, The Sentimental Bloke is Australian silent cinema at its finest: dramatic, funny, emotionally earnest, and heartwarming; as one of the few movies to survive (relatively) intact from the period, it should be required viewing for anyone interested in silent cinema, or just because it’s a beautiful story beautifully told.

Cop Car (2015)

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Cop Car

D: Jon Watts / 86m

Cast: Kevin Bacon, James Freedson-Jackson, Hays Wellford, Shea Whigham, Camryn Manheim

Two boys, Travis (Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Wellford) have run away from their respective homes, and are travelling across country when they stumble upon a police cruiser in a small wooded area. Nervous about being discovered and taken home, they approach the vehicle with caution but soon realise that whoever it belongs to isn’t anywhere nearby. They get in and pretend to be driving it when Travis finds the keys. Caught up in the excitement of finding the car, they drive off, eventually reaching a main road where they almost collide with a woman driver (Manheim).

Meanwhile, Sheriff Kretzer (Bacon), whose cruiser it is, is busy disposing of a body he had in the trunk. When he returns to the car to dispose of a second body, he of course finds it’s gone. Confused, he uses his mobile phone to call Dispatch and ask the operator if she’s heard anything unusual over the radio. Kretzer is relieved when she says no, but knows that it could be just a matter of time before his car is seen or stopped. He begins to run across country until he comes to a trailer park. There he steals a car, and uses it to head home where he can regroup. When another call to Dispatch reveals reports of a stolen cop car, he dismisses the idea and arranges for all the local units to switch to another channel.

That done, he uses the radio in his truck to try and contact whoever’s stolen his cruiser. The boys don’t hear him at first, but they do hear a noise from the trunk. When they open it they discover a badly beaten man (Whigham) who is also tied up. He implores them to free him, saying the sheriff is a bad man and his life is still in danger. But when Travis and Harrison do free him, he overpowers them, and when Kretzer calls through again, the man forces Harrison to give him their location. While Kretzer heads to meet them, the man takes the sheriff’s assault rifle and hides nearby with the intention of killing him when he arrives. But when the sheriff does arrive, he senses something’s wrong, and so begins a game of cat-and-mouse that sees the two friends trapped in the back of the cruiser, and at the mercy of both the man and the sheriff.

Cop Car - scene

Cop Car‘s basic premise is a simple one: boys steal a sheriff’s cruiser, sheriff tries to get cruiser back, things get messy and complicated very quickly. In fact, it’s such a simple premise that it doesn’t need much more embellishment than a woman driver who can’t believe what’s she seen (two boys driving a sheriff’s car). And director/co-writer (along with Christopher J. Ford) Watts knows it, paring down the action and the drama to the point where only the most essential requirements are needed or used. It makes a refreshing change to see a thriller that’s pared down in such an effective way, and it’s all credit to Watts and Ford that they maintain such a tightly focused narrative throughout.

Of course, they’re helped enormously by the presence of Bacon (sporting a moustache that could qualify as either a special effect or a character in its own right). As the cocksure sheriff whose crooked endeavours are brought to heel by the intervention of two unsuspecting ten year olds, Bacon is a mix of sweaty terror and ambivalent menace; there’s a moral compass in there, but thanks to the script and Bacon’s interpretation of the character the viewer can’t be sure which way he’ll turn when it comes to dealing with the two boys (as opposed to Whigham’s unequivocally bad guy, who in the movie’s most cruelly effective scene, tells the boys just what he’ll do if they try and double cross him).

With Bacon on such fine form, it’s a good job that Freedson-Jackson and Wellford are able to match him for credibility, their easy-going camaraderie and childish naïvete another of the movie’s wealth of positives. In this day and age of computer whizz-kids and their seemingly inevitable rush to adulthood, it’s good to see a couple of kids who aren’t tech savvy, don’t know about safety catches on guns, and believe that someone they find bound and bloodied in the trunk of a car isn’t on the wrong side of the law (their ease in driving does raise a few questions however). Travis is the more confident of the two, and Freedson-Jackson – making his feature debut – shows how vulnerable he really is beneath all the bravado. By contrast, Harrison is the more cautious and reserved of the two, and Wellford portrays his gradual toughening up with a skill that belies his age and experience.

There’s very little in the way of subplot either, with Kretzer’s pursuit of his car, and the man’s determination to kill him providing all the required tension and drama. By putting the two boys square in the middle of the two men’s determination to kill each other, Watts adds a layer of vulnerability to a story that would otherwise be a straightforward slab of testosterone set in wide open spaces. And what wide open spaces they are, the Colorado locations beautifully lensed by Matthew J. Lloyd and Larkin Seiple, the rolling grasslands often overwhelmed by some impressively glowering skies. The locations give the movie a sense of place and dimension, making even Kretzer’s run across country seem entirely possible, despite the seemingly endless vistas he has to travel through.

For all Watts’ and Ford’s careful attention to detail and the way in which they’ve carefully structured their story, there are still a few problems. The scene where Kretzer persuades the woman driver to look for his keys isn’t as clever or convincing as it needs to be, and leaves the viewer feeling a little disappointed at the way in which the movie is heading towards its conclusion. And the outcome of the sheriff’s showdown with the man feels forced, while what follows seems hopelessly contrived, as if the movie needed to be a certain length and this was the best way they could come up with to meet that need. It undermines all the good work that’s gone before, but not so much to negate it entirely, though some viewers will probably be left shaking their heads in dismay.

Rating: 7/10 – let down by a final quarter hour that flouts the carefully constructed narrative that’s gone before, Cop Car is still a great little thriller that is much better than you’d expect; eschewing cynicism (in a genre that can’t help itself sometimes), and focusing on the situation the boys find themselves in, it has a knowing depth that rewards on closer examination.

Danny Collins (2015)

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Danny Collins

D: Dan Fogelman / 106m

Cast: Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Jennifer Garner, Bobby Cannavale, Christopher Plummer, Katarina Cas, Giselle Eisenberg, Melissa Benoist, Josh Peck, Nick Offerman

In 1971, young folk singer Danny Collins is on the verge of stardom. His first album, featuring songs he’s written himself, is about to be released, and he’s about to give an interview for Chime magazine that will attract the attention of one of rock music’s most well-known performers (and one of Danny’s idols).

Fast forward to 2014 and Danny is touring in support of his third greatest hits album. He no longer sings his own material, and hasn’t written a song since he made his first album. His signature song is a track called Baby Doll, and his fans want him to sing it before anything else. With his audience aging as much as he is, Danny relies heavily on cocaine and booze to get him through his day, and he has a young girlfriend, Sophie (Cas), he’s thinking of making his fourth wife. When his birthday comes round, his manager and long-time friend Frank Grubman (Plummer) hands him a special present: a letter written to him by John Lennon in response to the Chime interview. In it, Lennon offers the young Danny help in avoiding the pitfalls of being famous in the music business, and even includes his phone number.

Danny is shell-shocked by the idea that Lennon could have changed the course of his career. Feeling that he’s wasted the last forty-plus years, he decides it’s time to make some changes. He catches Sophie with another, younger man, but isn’t angry; instead he tells her he’s going away for a while and to enjoy their home for a little longer (though he makes it clear their relationship is over). He travels to New Jersey and stays at a Hilton hotel with the intention of going to see his son who lives nearby but with whom he’s had no contact. He also begins writing a new song, while attempting to woo the hotel manager, Mary Sinclair (Bening). And when Frank comes to visit him, Danny tells him he doesn’t want to continue with the tour either.

Danny visits his son’s home, and meets his daughter-in-law Samantha (Garner) and his granddaughter Hope (Eisenberg). When his son Tom (Cannavale) arrives home he makes it clear he doesn’t want anything to do with Danny. But Danny perseveres, both with his new song, wooing Mary, and by arranging for Tom and Samantha to have an interview for a special school that will deal with Hope’s ADHD. As he begins to make headway with his new life, Danny learns that he’s not as financially secure as he thought, and going back on tour is his best option. But then Mary challenges him to play his new song at his next gig…

Danny Collins - scene

The idea of Al Pacino playing an aging singer trying to reconnect with his lost youth and aspirations seems like the perfect excuse for a stark, emotionally compelling drama, but writer/director Dan Fogelman has other ideas. Instead of dark and challenging, he’s gone for wistful and comic, with a side order of restrained sentimentality. Add in slices of romance, personal regret, misdirected anger, and selflessness, and you have a comedy that pokes fun at Danny’s lifestyle and sense of himself – “No, I’m sharp!” – but does so without laughing at him.

When we first meet him in 1971, Danny is anxious, mildly confident, but absolutely terrified of the thought he might be famous. When we see him again he’s a tired, unhappy man going through the motions of being famous, and his terror has given way to a weary resignation; this is his life, for better or worse. When he’s given the letter by Lennon, it opens his eyes both to the life he’s living, and the life he could have had. Pacino effortlessly portrays the sad realisation that Danny has in that moment, and the viewer can feel the sense of self-betrayal coast off of him in waves. It’s the movie’s most effecting moment, and Pacino is flawless. And from that, Danny regains a sense of purpose, a drive he’s not had in years, and the new Danny is funny, immensely likeable, supportive of others to a fault, and willing to own up to his mistakes. It’s a sea change that could have appeared unlikely or unconvincing, but Pacino, ably supported by Fogelman, brushes aside any apprehensions the viewer might have, and strides on imperiously like a rejuvenated force of nature.

With Pacino giving one of his best performances in recent years, Danny Collins is a pleasure to watch from start to finish, with equally impressive supporting turns from the always dependable Bening (perhaps too dowdily attired and coiffed to really attract a major singing star), Garner and Cannavale, and the sublime Plummer, who gets some of the movie’s best lines, and who is drily memorable throughout. It’s a movie that is very easy to watch as a result, as the cast go about their business with the surety of veteran performers, but it’s Fogelman who’s the real star here, effortlessly poking a stick at the ridiculous nature of celebrity, and imbuing the movie with a heart and a warmth that reaches out to the viewer and envelops them in its heartfelt embrace. Thankfully, this is one screenplay – based on the true story involving folk singer Steve Tilston – that he’s judged exceptionally well, and the confidence he and the cast have in the material is evident in the finished product (Fogelman has had a somewhat schizophrenic career as a screenwriter: for every Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011), there’s been a Fred Claus (2007) to balance things out).

Shot with a preference for bright, sharply delineated colours by Steve Yedlin, and with a score by Ryan Adams and Theodore Shapiro that is overwhelmed by the inclusion of several of John Lennon’s solo works (some of which feel more intrusive than complementary), Danny Collins is a romantic comedy drama that is a great deal of fun, and well worth your time, even though it’s sadly apparent that Pacino, great actor though he is, is no great shakes as a singer.

Rating: 8/10 – surprisingly good and with the kind of warm-hearted approach that puts a smile on the viewer’s face throughout, Danny Collins is bolstered by a great performance from Pacino, and a very astute script from Fogelman; with as many visual gags as verbal ones (though none can beat Plummer’s offloading of a Steinway piano), it’s a movie that is continually entertaining, and definitely one to watch with a group of likeminded friends.

Second Cousin of My Top 10 Movie Quotes

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Ever since I posted My Top 10 Movie Quotes, I’ve encountered or remembered even more movie quotes that have either made me laugh, impressed me out of all proportion to the rest of the movie they’re in, or just sounded so profound that they’ve stuck in my memory ever since. And so, here are another ten examples of dialogue that will never die or fade away…

1 – “Oh my God, it’s the slutty Oompa Loompas.” – Judge Klark, The To Do List (2013)

2 – “Don’t cheat on your lady, man, when you live in a country that only has eight people in it.” – Helicopter pilot, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

3 – “This never happened to the other fellow.” – James Bond, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

George Lazenby

4 – “Why do all the best things in life belong to the past?” – Tommy Fawkes, Funny Bones (1995)

5 – “No, let me go! I’ve got tides to regulate! Comets to direct! I don’t have time for flatulence and orgasms!” – King of the Moon, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

6 – “Bring in that floating fat man, the Baron!” – Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, Dune (1984)

7 – “I want to apologize. I’m not even confident on which end that came out of.” – Megan, Bridesmaids (2011)

Melissa McCarthy

8 – “She looks like a cocktail waitress on an oil rig.” – Scott Donlan, Best in Show (2000)

9 – “The fat one on the throne is the queen. She’s not very well today, so I should kneel upwind of her.” – Flunkie, Yellowbeard (1983)

10 – “Waiter, will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts?” – Nora Charles, The Thin Man (1934)

The To Do List (2013)

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To Do List, The

D: Maggie Carey / 104m

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Johnny Simmons, Bill Hader, Alia Shawkat, Sarah Steele, Scott Porter, Rachel Bilson, Connie Britton, Clark Gregg, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Andy Samberg, Donald Glover

High school valedictorian Brandy Klark (Plaza) is a straight-A student who’s looking forward to going off to college. She’s fiercely intelligent, studious and focused, but when her two best friends, Fiona (Shawkat) and Wendy (Steele) coerce her into attending a party, the sight of blonde beefcake Rusty (Porter) awakens feelings in her that she’s never experienced before. That night she gets drunk for the first time, and when Rusty comes into the room where she’s trying to sleep it off, he mistakes her for someone else. They start making out, but Brandy’s reaction stops Rusty short. He apologises and leaves. Confused by her newfound feelings, Brandy seeks advice from her older sister, Amber (Bilson). Astonished that Brandy has no sexual experience at all, Amber tells her that she needs to address the issue before she gets to college. In order to do so, Brandy compiles a list of sexual acts to experience over the course of the summer.

While she begins to put her plan into action, Brandy works at an outdoor swimming pool. On her first day she finds that Rusty works there too, as well as her friend Cameron (Simmons). Cameron wants to be her boyfriend but he’s too shy to ask her out. Brandy also meets their boss, Willy (Hader), who it transpires, is homeless and lives on site. Brandy flirts with Rusty who appears bemused by the attention, while at the same time she begins her voyage of sexual exploration, co-opting a willing Cameron into the process, and giving him the impression that she has feelings for him. But for Brandy, becoming sexually experienced is treated like a school project, and she approaches each sex act with an air of detachment. As she ticks off each item on her list, she begins to discover that sex can cause a lot of problems she wouldn’t previously have considered.

Soon, word gets round about her list. One of Cameron’s friends, Duffy (Mintz-Plasse) takes advantage of Brandy’s curiosity, as does her co-worker Derrick (Glover). She also hooks up with a rock singer called Van (Samberg) at the pool, but though she’s able to tick off one more sexual practice, she’s interrupted by Willy, who’s horrified by Brandy and her friends’ behaviour. And when Cameron discovers what’s been going on he refuses to have anything further to do with her. When Fiona tells Brandy that she’d like to date Cameron, Brandy’s confusion over her feelings leads to a breakdown in her relationship with Fiona and Wendy. Undeterred though, Brandy forges ahead with her plan, and finally plucks up the courage to ask Rusty on a date, a date where she plans to tick off one experience in particular: losing her virginity.

To Do List, The - scene

Anchored by a fearless performance from Aubrey Plaza – watch the masturbation scene to see just how fearless – The To Do List is a raucous, raunchy, pull-no-punches look at female sexual instruction and empowerment. Maggie Carey’s screenplay often finds itself very near the knuckle (though it does depend on where that knuckle is at the time), and paints a uniquely female perspective on the ups and downs of early sexual experiences. Through the character of Brandy, Carey’s script skewers some probable misconceptions about female sexuality, and provides an object lesson in the differences between the sexes. It’s scabrously funny at times, with much of the humour arising from Brandy’s unfamiliarity with certain sexual techniques (“What’s a rim job? Guess I’ll have to ask at the library”), and the posturing that teenagers adopt in order to look and feel more adult.

If you’re one of those teenagers then this movie is going to feel a lot like a documentary, but there’s enough staple rom-com ingredients to help allay any fears that this is going to end up abandoning subtlety at the side of the road and being cruder than a turd in a swimming pool – oh, hang on, there is one (and Brandy takes a bite out of it). And yet, while the movie appears to be a distaff relation to the American Pie series, it retains a sweet, harmless core that makes some of the more questionable moments easier to accept and deal with. Again, this is largely due to Carey’s clever, balanced script, and the familiarity of seeing teenagers pretending to be adults while getting it completely wrong.

In the lead role, Plaza shows once again why she’s one of the best young(-ish) actresses around – it’s hard to believe but she was twenty-nine when The To Do List was released. She takes great care in making Brandy as credibly naïve as possible, even to the point that she’s never had any amorous feelings until she sets eyes on Rusty (what have she and her friends been talking about all this time?). With that battle won, her studious, almost lab-based approach to discovering sex is presented in such a witty and laugh out loud way that it’s no surprise that the viewer ends up rooting for her, even when things start to go wrong through her own intransigence.

The rest of the cast take turns in sharing the glory of Plaza’s performance, with Hader (in real life, Carey’s husband) coming off best as the slightly seedy, sometimes cruel Willy, unaverse to making fun of Brandy’s boobs (or lack of them), and yet paternal and supportive when confronting her over her “experiment” with Van. While there isn’t one horrible person in the whole movie, Willy comes closest thanks to the scene where he encourages boob jokes at Brandy’s expense, and it’s the one scene in the whole movie that feels out of place. Elsewhere, Brandy’s verbal battles with Amber are ambitiously aggressive, and Plaza and Bilson are clearly revelling in spitting out so much bile at each other. Porter exudes surf dude manliness with ease, Simmons does awkward adolescent with aplomb, Mintz-Plasse does would-be Lothario with gusto, and Gregg is terrific as Brandy’s dad, a judge for whom any talk of sex is embarrassing and unnerving.

Some viewers, inevitably, will take issue with some of the more ruder content, but this is less about sex and more about finding oneself through sex, and becoming a more rounded person. As Cameron says towards the end, “sometimes sex is just sex”, and as a judicious summing up of what’s gone before, it’s entirely accurate. And the beauty of this movie is that it knows it as surely as finger-banging is really known as finger-blasting… or is it finger-bombing…?

Rating: 8/10 – a delight from start to finish and one that doesn’t patronise either its characters or its audience, The To Do List is one of the more honest movies about sex you’re ever likely to see; funny, compassionate, disarming, and defiantly rude, it’s some of the best fun you can have with your clothes on.

Mini-Review: The Boy Next Door (2015)

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Boy Next Door, The

D: Rob Cohen / 91m

Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Ryan Guzman, John Corbett, Ian Nelson, Kristin Chenoweth, Lexi Atkins, Hill Harper, Jack Wallace

Claire Peterson (Lopez) teaches classic literature at her local high school. She’s separated from her husband, Garrett (Corbett), due to his having had an affair, and lives with their son, Kevin (Nelson). When high school senior Noah Sandborn (Guzman) moves in to look after his ailing uncle (Wallace) next door, his good looks and chiseled physique prove distracting to Claire, and she finds herself becoming attracted to him. With Garrett making every effort to win back Claire’s trust, he and Kevin go off fishing for the weekend. Noah creates an excuse for Claire to come and see him, and when she does, he seizes his chance and they have sex.

The next morning, Claire realises she shouldn’t have slept with Noah and tells him it was a mistake. Noah becomes angry, and his behaviour reveals a darker, more sinister side, one that sees Claire at risk of losing her family, her job, and possibly, her life. As she tries desperately to keep their one night stand a secret, Noah insists they should be together, and warns Claire that if she doesn’t agree to be with him, he’ll let Kevin or Garrett watch the video he made of them having sex. But when the brakes on Garrett’s car fail while he and Kevin are in it, Claire realises that Noah will stop at nothing in his attempts to have her, and that she needs to do something to protect both her and her family.

Boy Next Door, The - scene

It’s hard to say which is the worst thing about The Boy Next Door: it’s either Rob Cohen’s tired, uninspired direction, or the unappealing, highly derivative script by Barbara Curry, or even the various below-par performances. There’s nothing here to recommend the movie to an audience, and very, very little that warrants the kind of attention lavished on it by the producers (who include Lopez herself), so amateurish in execution is the final product. This isn’t even a movie-by-the-numbers; instead it’s just an absurd, lazy, painfully bad B-movie given spurious credibility by the involvement of Lopez, and the inclusion of a sex scene that is about as erotic as peeling potatoes.

Why this movie was made will remain a mystery that not even Scooby-Doo could solve, but given the talent involved, it should have had at least a thin veneer of respectability to help make it more palatable, but it’s clear that no one thought that this was relevant or necessary. Lopez looks embarrassed throughout, Guzman is there to get his shirt off as often as possible, while everyone else waits for their scenes to be over so they can go and do something more challenging (it’s a career low point for everyone concerned). If any proper evidence was needed as to the movie’s ridiculous attempts at drama, it would be the aftermath of a scene where Noah beats up a bully, and fractures his skull in the process: the police are never involved, and he further threatens the school’s vice principal without any reprisals there either. Like Noah, the movie is mad, bad, and dangerous to know.

Rating: 2/10 – so bad it’s truly difficult to watch without wondering if something this terrible shouldn’t have a laughter track, The Boy Next Door might be aspiring to trash movie status, but it’s hard to tell thanks to how terrible it is; a daunting prospect even at ninety-one minutes, only Randy Edelman and Nathan Barr’s cliché-lite score makes any real impression, but even then you’ll have forgotten it within a couple of hours.

Trailer – The Last Witch Hunter (2015)

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The second trailer for The Last Witch Hunter appears to be an object lesson in how NOT to sell a movie. Usually, these trailer alerts are to bring attention to movies that look like they could be fun, or entertaining, or thought-provoking, or just a little bit different from the standard fare served up to us. But this is something altogether more dispiriting, and more of a cause for alarm. The producers obviously think we’ve forgotten about Van Helsing (2004), Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013), I, Frankenstein (2014), and all of the Underworld movies, because otherwise why would they make such a movie, and why would they advertise it in exactly the same way as the trailers for those movies? (Having said that, alarm bells started to ring for me when I saw that beard.) I might be wrong, but on this evidence, this looks to be one movie where anticipation can be scaled back and disappointment can be prepared for.

Ladies and Gentlemen – Introducing… For One Week Only

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For anyone with an interest in movies, there’s generally a point in time when they realise that there’s one aspect of movie watching that provides more pleasure than all the others. It might be a particular genre, horror perhaps, or historical dramas, or movies set in a specific country. It might be a certain theme (addiction, corporate crime), or movies made by the same director or actor. Whatever it is, any movies connected with that aspect will come to mean the cinematic equivalent of comfort food, and sometimes, even if the movie is really, really, really bad, you’ll still gain some degree of satisfaction from watching it.

For me, horror movies fit the bill. I grew up watching them, I continue to watch them (good, bad, or frankly appalling), and if I’m having a really bad day, or just feel completely fed up or miserable, I sit down and watch the worst horror movie I can find. (We’re talking Leprechaun: Origins (2014) levels of bad here.) And it always does the trick.

With that in mind, let me introduce a new feature on thedullwoodexperiment: For One Week Only. The idea is to focus on one theme or actor or country’s output or cinematographer or point in history (or future) or genre or production company – you get the gist. This feature will occur roughly every six to eight weeks and will cover the selected topic/person in some detail across the week. During these weeks the regular reviews and trailer alerts will continue to appear, but will take a back seat to the new feature. Any and all feedback will be greatly appreciated, as will any suggestions for future weeks.

The first For One Week Only begins on Monday 17 August with a look at the Australian movie industry, and will comprise a kind of potted history of its development, and include reviews of movies that have been either instrumental in bringing Australia’s output to the attention of international audiences, or have a historical significance. Australian cinema is unique, and I’m looking forward to exploring that strange, wicked, off-beat world in all its cinematic glory. I can’t wait to get started on Monday – as Nux from Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) might say, “What a day! What a lovely day!”

For One Week Only (1)

Trailer – Deadpool (2016)

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After a less than stellar introduction in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), the self-styled Merc With the Mouth is back, and in a movie that seems certain to banish all memories of that particular (mute) incarnation. With Deadpool fan Ryan Reynolds donning the red and black costume, and strong support from the likes of Morena Baccarin and T.J. Miller, this promises to be as funny as it is violent, and seems likely to please fans everywhere. For a proper taste of the movie, it has to be the Red Band trailer – presented here – though it does lack the slightly creepy request that Deadpool makes at the end of the standard trailer. In any case, it all looks as if this could be the first Marvel character to really push the envelope in terms of adult material… and if so, then it’s a big m*therf*cking amen to that.

Honeytrap (2014)

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Honeytrap

D: Rebecca Johnson / 93m

Cast: Jessica Sula, Lucien Leviscount, Ntonga Mwanza, Naomi Ryan, Danielle Vitalis, Lauren Johns

Fifteen year old Layla (Sula) has had to move from Trinidad to Brixton to live with her mother, Shiree (Ryan). Neither of them is happy about the arrangement: Shiree makes it clear that Layla isn’t going to change her routine to help her fit in, while Layla makes it equally clear that she doesn’t want to be in the UK. They come to an uneasy arrangement, and Layla begins attending school. At first she finds it hard to fit in, but she eventually makes friends with a group of girls that includes Tonisha (Vitalis) and Jade (Johns). They take her under their wing but at the same time keep a distance from her, and encourage Layla to shoplift. Not wanting to remain an outsider, Layla goes along with whatever they do, including taking part in a music video being made by local rapper Troy (Leviscount).

Troy takes a close interest in Layla and gives her the impression that he really likes her. Layla is smitten and starts spending time with him, believing she’s his new girlfriend. When Troy’s attention begins to wane, and her friends become less interested in her because of the way she’s apparently snared Troy, whom they’re attracted to as well. With Troy losing interest, Layla goes to his flat where she is confronted by his real girlfriend. The visit ends badly, while at home, Shiree’s new boyfriend notices Layla and makes things awkward between mother and daughter.

At school, and with Troy no longer making any attempt to see Layla, she begins to spend time with Shaun (Mwanza). She regards Shaun as a friend while he hopes they can be closer. When he’s seen with Layla once too often, Troy hears about it and is angered by what he sees as an unacceptable relationship (Shaun has an effeminate air about him that Troy is disgusted by). Using Tonisha and Jade’s influence on Layla, Troy gets them to convince Layla to bring Shaun to a particular spot where Troy and some of his friends will be lying in wait for him With her loyalties torn between her friendship for Shaun and her need to fit in, Layla has to make a decision that will prove to be life changing.

Jessica Sula in Honeytrap

Based on a true story, Honeytrap is a sparse, naturalistic drama that highlights issues of race, acceptance, self-respect, jealousy, bullying, love, and manipulation amongst teenagers. It’s a powerfully direct movie capped by a terrific performance from Sula, and consistently thought-provoking. In the hands of writer/director Johnson, Layla’s struggle to fit in and be valued is given a fresh, pragmatic approach that helps the movie overcome some very clichéd moments as it recounts a tale that most viewers will already be familiar with from other, fictional dramatisations.

Where the story’s familiarity may appear to be a hindrance, the opposite is true. As Layla becomes more and more aware of the role she must play in order to be accepted, we see the decisions she makes and the effect they have on her, and the efforts she goes to in order to live with them. Some are easy (shoplifting clothes), others are more difficult (bonding with Shiree), but Layla approaches them all with a tremulous optimism that everything will work out for the best, even though she clearly has her doubts that this will be the case. Johnson and Sula make Layla’s insecurity and  need for acceptance so keenly felt that the viewer can almost forgive her for the fate that eventually awaits Shaun; it’s certainly understandable.

By making Shaun and Layla victims of their own desires, Johnson creates a milieu where the simplest act of affection or friendship can be misconstrued, and with terrible consequences. This would be bad enough if the characters depicted were adults, but Johnson is good at making the tragedy of teenage self-consciousness that much more stark and (seemingly) unavoidable. When Layla makes known her feelings for Troy, it’s with that desperate, needy wish to be noticed that most teenagers go through at some point, and it’s heartbreaking to see someone heading down a path that will ultimately see them place themselves, and others, in jeopardy.

In the main role of Layla, Sula is outstanding, bringing spirit, poignancy and a tempered ambivalence to the role that elevates Layla’s insecurities to a level that further underlines her initial timidity. As she gains in confidence, Johnson cleverly skewers that confidence by having Layla stumble and make mistakes, so that by the time she’s coerced into walking Shaun to an uncertain fate, her complicity in what follows becomes more credible and affecting. Sula is persuasive throughout, giving a polished, intuitive performance that anchors the movie and gives it an additional emotional grounding that becomes more necessary as the movie progresses.

In support, Leviscount is arrogant and charming as Troy, showing the attractive side of his art before revealing the seedier, more misogynistic values he really adheres to. In comparison to Layla, Troy is more of a stereotype, though one can see a hint of the “good guy” he’d like people to believe he can be, or is. Mwanza is diffident and restrained as Shaun, keeping his feelings for Layla bottled up and settling for being with her as an acceptable substitute for being “with” her. And as Shiree, Ryan is on top form as the mother whose idea of parental responsibility is to pretend (for the most part) that she’s not really a mother; her scenes with Sula are subtle and potent all at once.

Filmed on the streets and in the houses of Brixton, Honeytrap is a straightforward though dramatically authoritative movie that tells its melancholy story with a great deal of empathy for its characters, and with a telling sense of its own worth as a (fictional) record of a terrible tragedy.

Rating: 8/10 – not an uplifting or redemptive movie by any stretch, Honeytrap is nevertheless a moody, compelling examination of teenage social exclusion that builds to a dread-filled climax; unapologetically bleak in places, it’s still one of the finest British dramas of recent years and deserving of a much wider audience than it’s received so far.

Mini-Review: Southpaw (2015)

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Southpaw

D: Antoine Fuqua / 124m

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence, Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson, Naomie Harris, Skylan Brooks, Victor Ortiz, Beau Knapp, Miguel Gomez

Billy ‘The Great’ Hope (Gyllenhaal) is both the light heavyweight boxing champion of the world and undefeated in forty-three professional fights. Defending his title against the latest challenger, Billy’s lack of defence causes the fight to last longer and take more of a toll. His wife, Maureen (McAdams) feels he should take some time off to fully recover, while his manager, Jordan Mains (Jackson), wants him to sign a lucrative contract with a TV network for three further fights. And another boxer, young and cocky Miguel ‘Magic’ Escobar (Gomez), is trying to goad Billy into letting him challenge for the title.

At a charity event, a brawl between Billy and Miguel ends in tragedy when one of Miguel’s entourage accidentally shoots and kills Maureen. Devastated, Billy retreats from his daughter, Leila (Laurence), and embarks on a self-destructive path that sees him accept the TV network offer but lose the first fight in embarrassing fashion when he punches the referee, lose his licence to box professionally, be let go by Mains, lose his home and property through mounting debts, and when he tries to kill himself, he loses custody of Leila as well. Charged by the court to straighten himself out, Billy turns to boxing coach Tate Wills (Whitaker) to help him get back in the ring and in turn, regain custody of Leila. When it’s clear he’s back in shape and boxing better than ever, Mains reappears and offers him a fight he can’t refuse: against Miguel, now the light heavyweight champion of the world.

Southpaw - scene

On paper at least, Southpaw should have been a sure-fire winner (or in boxing parlance, a knockout). With a director known for his visual flair and aptitude for strong male characters, a lead actor who – Accidental Love (2015) aside – is on one of the hottest streaks of recent years, and the screenwriter who created Sons of Anarchy, this tale of riches to rags to redemption should have been a gripping examination of one man’s descent into despair, and his journey back to a more stable life.

But alas, Southpaw is a movie that consistently disappoints the viewer and sticks to such a precisely engineered, formulaic script that when there is a moment of unexpected originality, it sticks out like a sore thumb. And all this despite another physically demanding performance from Gyllenhaal, but one that is strangely lacking in  the kind of passion that would have made Billy a lot more sympathetic. As it is, he’s a sullen presence throughout, and not very likeable either. McAdams and Whitaker fare better, taking the flimsiness of their characters and making them appear to have more depth than they actually have. But in the acting stakes it’s Laurence who steals the show (and somebody needed to), giving yet another outstanding child performance. Behind the lens, Fuqua doesn’t seem to have the energy to vary the tempo, leaving some scenes feeling flatter than others, while the estimable Mauro Fiore’s photography is reduced to showcase scenes that are so underlit that it makes you wonder if the production couldn’t afford lighting rigs or spots.

Rating: 6/10 – too predictable and too bland despite the punishing boxing matches and the various attempts at emotionally manipulating its audience, Southpaw falls short of being a great boxing movie; it ticks all the boxes marked cliché, and never once tries to lift itself up off the canvas and land a killer blow.

Captain Z & the Terror of Leviathan (2014)

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Captain Z

D: Steve Rudzinski / 80m

Cast: Zoltan Zilai, Steve Rudzinski, Madison Siple, Aleen Isley, Seth Gontkovic, Ian S. Livingston, Cerra Atkins, Josh Devett, Scott Lewis, Joshua Antoon

1714, the town of Riverwood, Ohio. Having taken possession of some of the townsfolk, a band of demons attempt to raise the dark god Leviathan using an amulet and the sacrifice of a redhead. With their victim about to be offered up, the infamous pirate captain Zachariah Zicari (Zilai) comes to her rescue and kills the demons’ human forms but in the process the demons and the captain are absorbed into the amulet, which ends up at the bottom of the nearby river.

2014. The Toy & Train Museum is celebrating the three hundredth anniversary of Captain Zicari’s triumph over the demons, an event that has come to be thought of as more of a local legend than historical fact. Under the auspices of museum head Mr Kincaid (Lewis), the staff there, intellectually challenged redhead Heather (Siple), inappropriate J.T. (Antoon), abrasive Samantha (Atkins) and Kincaid’s son Neal (Devett), all have their roles to play in the upcoming celebrations. The arrival of a paranormal researcher and author, Glen Stewart (Rudzinski), who’s come to investigate the legend and maybe find the amulet, prompts the museum staff to help him with his research.

Meanwhile, by the river, two of the locals, Jake (Livingston) and his son Judd (Gontkovic) are fishing. Jake lands the amulet and they take it home with them. Judd’s sister, Bobbie (Isley), looks it over and finds there’s writing on one side. She reads it aloud; this releases the demons – who promptly possess Bobbie, Jake and Judd and the rest of their family – and Captain Zicari. The Captain fights his way out and takes the amulet with him. Further along the river, Glen, Kincaid and Heather are pondering the possibility of the amulet being found when Captain Zicari appears. Although he tells them about the demons, it’s not until proof is provided by the arrival of one of Bobbie’s family (who kills Kincaid by ripping his heart out), does anyone believe him.

Killing the demon’s human form, Glen and Heather bow to the captain’s wishes and head for J.T.’s place, where he’s having a party. While the captain indulges in sex and rum, the demons trace him there and try to retrieve the amulet. The trio escape, and head back to the museum. There they bring Neal and Samantha up to speed on what’s happening, but before long Bobbie, Jake and Judd (now called Vepar, Barbatos and Bune respectively), turn up and various showdowns ensue, which lead to Barbatos and Bune being killed, but Vepar getting away with both the amulet and Heather. Now it’s up to the captain and Glen to stop Vepar from completing the ritual to summon Leviathan, and save the world… as we know it.

Captain Z - scene

Every now and then, a movie comes along that aims to spoof a particular genre or sub-genre of movie. Usually, those movies are pretty dire – anyone who’s seen just one of the Scary Movie series will know what I mean – but sometimes, on even rarer occasions, the spoof movie proves to be inspired, and well worth tracking down and watching. Such is the case with Captain Z & the Terror of Leviathan.

Be warned though: this movie looks incredibly cheap (the set representing Bobbie and her family’s home wouldn’t look out of place in a Seduction Cinema release). The opening scenes in 1714 are woefully acted, directed, shot and edited, and some viewers may think, “Uh uh, no way I’m watching any more of this”. But that would be the wrong idea, because with its extra-ropey prologue out of the way, the movie can begin to flourish, and its true purpose becomes clear: it’s an amateur production that wants to look even more amateurish in order to raise quite a few laughs – and intentional ones at that.

What Rudzinski and co-writer Zilai have done is to take the accepted style of a low budget horror movie, with its lame dialogue, low production values, and low rent special effects, and make these very drawbacks the whole point. This is a movie that knows it’s bad, and the great thing is that it’s all been done deliberately, from the terrible CGI to the rickety sets, from the arch, often over-ripe dialogue to the mannered, stereotypical performances; it’s all done with an absurdist air that helps make the movie far more enjoyable and self-reflexive than the viewer has any right to expect.

Throughout there are nods and small homages to other movies, and in-jokes that bear witness to the movie’s knowing attitude. At one point, Glen revs up a chainsaw and says he’s always wanted to say this: “Groovy!” And there’s a scene where Zicari and Neal share an emotional moment that ends with Heather saying it’s like in a comedy or action movie where it has to get real for a moment. It’s at times like these that the true intention behind the movie shines out, and any accusations that Captain Z & the Terror of Leviathan is low budget trash or completely unredeemable, crumble away to nothing. Sure, the sets look shoddy, and sure the framing usually has trouble fitting in more than two people in any given scene, and sure some of the editing looks to have been done with a pair of blunt scissors, but it truly does add to the charm of the piece, and makes it a lot more enjoyable.

Rudzinski and his cast and crew clearly know what they’re doing. The basic plot is silly and stupid, the characters act and behave as if they’ve never interacted with real people before, the dialogue is clumsy and leaves the characters looking like English isn’t their first language, the cast cope “awkwardly” with said dialogue, and despite all this, the movie just plain works. There’s a knowing attitude here, an approach that invites the audience to join in with the gag, that this movie is so bad it’s actually very good, that what the viewer sees has all been planned ahead of time and thanks to Rudzinski’s confidence in the material and the way in which it’s been put together, it provides more entertainment than anyone could envisage.

However, it should be noted that there are times when the in-jokes and the laughs aren’t as effective as they should be, and while some of the performances may seem as bad as they’re meant to be, a couple really are that bad, particularly Devett and Antoon. Siple is maddeningly good as the bubble-headed Heather, and in a role that often confounds the viewer: is she really this bad, or is she just really good at being bad? You decide, but anyone who can deliver the line, “I learned how to talk to cats today” in such a guileless way as Siple does, deserves to be congratulated rather than condemned. Elsewhere, Zilai isn’t the most convincing of pirates, while Rudzinski is obviously having too much fun to care. It all adds up to a movie with a definite agenda, and one that has clearly been achieved.

Rating: 7/10 – with some wicked moments of unforced hilarity in amongst all the superficial “errors of judgement”, Captain Z & the Terror of Leviathan is a Z-movie fan’s dream: continually witless, defiantly odd, and apparently awful; if you see only one spoof movie this year, make sure it’s this one, or the captain might just have something to say about it.

Trailer – Secret in Their Eyes (2015)

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When The Secret in Their Eyes, an Argentinian thriller, was released in 2009, it was perhaps inevitable, given its critical success, that Hollywood would attempt a remake at some point – and here it is. Boasting a fantastic cast, including an almost unrecognisable Julia Roberts (could they have made her look more dowdy?), Secret in Their Eyes looks edgy and dark and compelling, and with Billy Ray in the driving seat as director and writer (bear in mind his last script was for Captain Phillips), this has all the potential to be as riveting as its predecessor, and pick up a healthy clutch of awards come 2016.

Dark Places (2015)

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Dark Places

D: Gilles Paquet-Brenner / 113m

Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Christina Hendricks, Tye Sheridan, Chloë Grace Moretz, Corey Stoll, Sterling Jerins, Sean Bridgers, Andrea Roth, Shannon Kook, Drea de Matteo

In 1985, in a small rural community in Kansas, a single mother and two of her daughters are all killed one night at their farmhouse; later, the surviving daughter, Libby (Jerins), tells the police her brother Ben (Sheridan) did it. After his arrest and during his trial, Ben offers no defence and he’s sent to prison for the rest of his life.

In 2015, the adult Libby (Theron) is down on her luck and counting on her minor celebrity status to keep her afloat. When she’s contacted by Lyle Wirth (Hoult) with the offer of $500 for a speaking engagement, she arranges to meet with him first. Lyle tells her he belongs to a group called The Kill Club, an organisation of volunteers who look into old unsolved murders, or cases where they believe an innocent person has been put in jail. She attends one of their meetings and finds that several members believe Ben didn’t commit the murders, and Libby finds herself challenged over her version of events that night. Angry at first, Libby agrees to help the group look into the  case, and begins her own investigation alongside theirs.

Lyle convinces her to visit her brother, something she’s never done. Ben (Stoll) is happy to see her, but Libby’s resentment of him means the visit goes badly. Back in her hometown she tries to find her father, Runner (Bridgers), who abandoned them when she was much younger. She also looks into the possibility of Ben having been part of a Satanic cult at the time, and why a young girl named Krissi Cates is relevant to what happened. As she learns more and more, she discovers Ben had a girlfriend called Diondra (Moretz). With Lyle’s help, Libby begins to put all the pieces together, and finds that what she believed happened all those years ago is far more complicated than she could ever imagined – and the repercussions of those events are still being played out in the present.

Dark Places - scene

Adapted from the novel by Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl, Dark Places is a murder mystery where what appears to be a simple, unexplainable crime proves to be something a lot more complicated and strange, and with a bewildering set of coincidences that make up the solution to the murders. Paquet-Brenner’s adaptation keeps the narrative skipping backwards and forwards between 1985 and 2015, showing us the events that led to the murders in 1985, and linking these scenes to the discoveries Libby makes in the present. As the story gradually unfolds, and we see the drama that played out in the past, we gain a greater understanding of the whys and hows that govern the actions of Libby and those people who were involved.

It’s a delicate balancing act at times, with the structure dictating that there be some degree of repetition throughout, as what we see in the past is explained in the future. Thankfully, Paquet-Brenner avoids such a hazard by making each new discovery as confusing as the last, and by throwing in so many suspects it almost seems as if the entire community could have done it. As Libby’s investigation leads to some unsavoury truths and revelations, the director makes it clear that her memories of that night have always been tainted, but to what degree she and the audience have to find out for themselves.

The dark places of the title are the ones we go to in our minds when we contemplate issues of murder and perceived guilt. The movie explores these avenues via the adult Libby’s increasingly fractured certainty that Ben killed his mother and sisters. And while the script plants a very big clue early on as to what really happened, it’s more concerned with the various ways in which we, through Libby, justify our actions and sense of culpability. Libby is tormented by having not been able to do anything to stop Ben, but as his innocence becomes more and more likely, her own assertions (the ones that have carried her through all these years) begin to crumble and she’s faced with the daunting prospect that her testimony condemned her brother to prison for the rest of his life.

But it proves not to be so simple. Ben has his own reasons for staying quiet, and so we, like Libby, have to seek answers in those dark places mentioned already. Thanks to a tight, focused script, and a clutch of telling performances, the movie shifts and turns with every passing minute, making it more and more difficult to work out what actually happened. Theron is impressive as the outwardly angry but internally uncomfortable Libby, her strained features and abrasive attitude in keeping with a survivor who only has her celebrity to keep her going; without it she’d be aimless (another reason why she agrees to help the Kill Club). As Lyle, Hoult brings a determined optimism to the role that offsets and complements Libby’s antagonistic approach, while Hendricks stands out as the harried mother struggling to keep her home and family together in the face of impending financial ruin. With more than able support from the likes of Sheridan, Moretz and de Matteo as the older Krissi, Dark Places succeeds in making each character credible, even when they’re sometimes asked to behave in ways that don’t make sense until the final reveal.

To add to the effectiveness of the script, the acting and Paquet-Brenner’s solid, unshowy direction, the movie is filmed in a gloomy, downlit style by DoP Barry Ackroyd, his compositions and framing illustrating proceedings with confidence and giving scenes an eerie quality that makes it seem that there’s other, stranger stuff we should know about happening just out of frame. With a running time that allows more than sufficient time to detailing events in both time periods, and a score by Gregory Tripi that subtly adds a level of foreboding to the material, Dark Places is an intelligent thriller that holds the attention and makes for avid viewing.

Rating: 8/10 – riveting in a sombre, calculated way, Dark Places maintains its gloomy, oppressive mise en scene to good effect throughout, and makes its audience work hard to solve the mystery; a better than average adaptation that showcases another fine performance from Theron, and flits between the past and the present with assured clarity and focus.

Trainwreck (2015)

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Trainwreck

D: Judd Apatow / 125m

Cast: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Tilda Swinton, Colin Quinn, John Cena, Vanessa Bayer, Ezra Miller, Mike Birbiglia, Evan Brinkman, LeBron James, Amar’e Stoudemire, Daniel Radcliffe, Marisa Tomei

Amy Townsend (Schumer) is a magazine journalist whose idea of a relationship is to sleep with a guy on the first date and then wave goodbye to them in the morning (or sooner if she’s able to). She works for a men’s magazine called S’nuff that publishes articles such as “You’re Not Gay, She’s Boring”; when her editor, Dianna (Swinton) assigns her to write a profile on sports doctor Aaron Conners (Hader), she balks because she knows nothing about sports and thinks it’s all too silly.

At the same time as all this is going on, Amy and her sister Kim (Larson) are trying to get their father, Gordon (Quinn), who’s suffering from multiple sclerosis, into a nursing home. He’s a bit of a curmudgeon and is always antagonising or upsetting people. He also cheated on their mother and Kim resents him for it, though Amy is more forgiving. When she meets Aaron he quickly guesses that she knows nothing about sports, but there’s an attraction between them, and she plans to meet up with him again. In the meantime an evening with her on/off boyfriend Steven (Cena) goes horribly wrong when he learns about all the other men she’s been seeing.

Kim, who’s married to Tom (Birbiglia) and is stepmother to his son Allister (Brinkman), reveals she’s pregnant, but when she tells Gordon his attitude leads to her and Amy falling out. Amy meets Aaron again and after the interview they go back to his place and have sex; Amy breaks her own rule and stays the night. Panicked by this unexpected turn of events, Amy decides she must end things but Aaron calls wanting to see her again. At the next interview she intends to tell him but her dad has a fall and she and Aaron go to him, and Aaron stitches his head wound.

Amy and Aaron begin dating in earnest but she’s worried she’ll screw it up. At a baby shower for her sister, Amy upsets everyone with tales of her sexual escapades, but when she tries to apologise to Kim a couple of days later, Kim has some bad news that brings them back together. Later though they have another falling out, and she and Aaron argue as well. When she attends a function where Aaron is to receive an award she gets a call from Dianna and leaves the room while he makes his speech. When he catches up with her outside they have a fight which carries on back at his apartment. The next morning Aaron is unable to go ahead with an operation because of how tired he is. When he confronts Amy and says they should take a break, she takes him to mean permanently. Aware that this is one argument he’s not going to win, he leaves, which prompts Amy to return to her old ways… but this gets her into more trouble than she ever expected…

Trainwreck - scene

Best known for her TV appearances in the likes of A Different Spin with Mark Hoppus (2010), Delocated (2012) and her own show, Inside Amy Schumer (2013-15), the writer and star of Trainwreck is perhaps an unlikely choice to drive a relationship dramedy directed by Judd Apatow, but surprisingly enough, Schumer does extremely well in both departments. She’s not the world’s greatest actress, and her script skirts perilously close at times to being needlessly crude, but with the aid of Apatow, Hader and a strong supporting cast, Schumer has come up with a story that covers a lot of emotional ground and manages to avoid short-changing its characters.

And while her script isn’t exactly the most original concoction out there – too much happens that makes it look as if Schumer followed a pre-existing blueprint – what makes it work as well as it does is Apatow’s handling of the various relationships and the way in which he gives his cast the room to flesh out their characters beyond the story’s conventions, and pays close attention to the serious undertones that are present throughout. These are key to the movie’s overall effectiveness, and shows that Schumer the writer is able to be poignant and touching, as well as funny and caustic. There’s a brief scene between Amy and Allister that is as touching as anything you’ll see in a more dramatic movie, and the moment when Steven reveals his true feelings for Amy is superbly written, acted and directed.

Of course, this is primarily a comedy, but though it is incredibly funny in places – Amy’s attempt at a slam dunk is the movie’s comedy highlight – there are also times where the script tries too hard, notably in a sex scene involving Schumer and Cena that undermines the idea of Amy and Steven being together and includes Cena talking dirty in Chinese (but not really). Elsewhere there are some great one-liners (Aaron calling LeBron James his bitch), instances of situational comedy that brighten things immensely (Amy’s aforementioned speech about her sexual escapades), and some great visual gags too (co-worker Nikki’s smile). All in all the comedy and the drama are well balanced and neither detracts from the other.

The cast enter into the spirit of things with enthusiasm, and aside from the inclusion of some real life athletes (James is particularly awkward), there are some really great performances, notably from Larson as the sensible but resentful sister, and Cena as the boyfriend whose inappropriate responses to another cinema goer’s complaints is another of the movie’s highlights. Schumer proves herself to be a better actress than you might expect, and Hader shows a sensitivity as Aaron that grounds the character and makes him entirely sympathetic. And there are brilliant cameos from Daniel Radcliffe and Marisa Tomei in the movie Amy and Steven go to see called The Dogwalker, a small masterpiece of Sixties existential canine distress appropriately shot in black and white and which is such a glorious pastiche it leaves you wanting more.

Trainwreck is a little slow to get off the ground, and Amy’s behaviour may put off some viewers, but this is a movie that tugs at the heartstrings just as much as it tickles the funny bone. With Apatow using his directorial prowess to enhance Schumer’s script, and a cast prepared to give it their all, Schumer’s first attempt at a polished, nuanced movie is mostly successful, though what missteps it does make aren’t enough to hurt it.

Rating: 8/10 – an unexpected treat (even with the talent involved), Trainwreck is a small triumph, both laugh out loud funny and tearfully serious; all credit to Schumer for coming up with such an intelligent script and not trying to make every scene full of unnecessary jokes.

Monthly Roundup – July 2015

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Behind Office Doors (1931) / D: Melville W. Brown / 82m

Cast: Mary Astor, Robert Ames, Ricardo Cortez, Catherine Dale Owen, Kitty Kelly, Edna Murphy, Charles Sellon, William Morris

Rating: 6/10 – at a paper supply company, personal assistant Mary Linden (Astor) is in love with rising young salesman Jim Duneen (Ames), but has to watch from the sidelines as he  plans to marry a socialite (Owen), completely unaware of how she feels about him; a broadly entertaining drama that was probably as predictable to watch in 1931 as it is today, Behind Office Doors benefits from a good performance from the always watchable Astor, and a breezy approach to social affairs that – pre-Hays code – allows Astor to kiss Cortez without being introduced first.

Behind Office Doors

Minions (2015) / D: Pierre Coffin, Kyle Balda / 91m

Cast: Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Steve Coogan, Jennifer Saunders, Geoffrey Rush, Steve Carell, Pierre Coffin

Rating: 8/10 – the origin of the Minions takes us all the way back to the first stirrings of life on earth and then catapults the viewer to 1968 and the efforts of three intrepid Minions – Kevin, Stuart and Bob – to find a new evil master; as absurdist and mayhem-filled as the Despicable Me movies, Minions promotes the little yellow sidekicks to centre stage, and has all sorts of fun riffing on the Sixties, even though some of the voice talents are far from recognisable (Hamm, Keaton, Janney).

Minions

Paris á tout prix (2013) / D: Reem Kherici / 93m

aka Paris or Perish

Cast: Reem Kherici, Cécile Cassel, Tarek Boudali, Philippe Lacheau, Shirley Bousquet, Salim Kechiouche, Stéphane Rousseau

Rating: 7/10 – Moroccan-born fashion designer Maya (Kherici) finds herself in the running for a promotion but is deported back to Morocco when it’s discovered her visa has expired, leaving her with no choice but to pretend she’s off sick until she can find a way back to Paris and win her promotion; Kherici’s likeable, frothy comedy has its poignant moments too, and takes an affectionate stab at the fashion industry, but in the end, Paris á tout prix suffers by being too predictable and slow to get off the ground while using very broad brush strokes on the secondary characters.

Paris a tout prix

Ted 2 (2015) / D: Seth MacFarlane / 115m

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Seth MacFarlane, Amanda Seyfried, Jessica Barth, Giovanni Ribisi, Morgan Freeman, Sam J. Jones, Patrick Warburton, Michael Dorn, John Slattery, John Carroll Lynch

Rating: 6/10 – when Ted (MacFarlane) marries his sweetheart Tami-Lynn (Barth) and they want to have children, their adoption application leads to Ted being declared to be property rather than a person, and his only chance of reversing the decision is to employ the services of eminent lawyer Patrick Meighan (Freeman); a sequel was always in the works and to his credit MacFarlane hasn’t strayed too far from the first movie’s formula, but it also makes Ted 2 seem more like a rehash than a genuine sequel, and while some of it is as outrageous as expected, there’s a little too much unnecessary plotting getting in the way of the jokes.

Ted 2

Scooby-Doo! and KISS: Rock and Roll Mystery (2015) / D: Spike Brandt, Tony Cervone / 79m

Cast: Frank Welker, Mindy Cohn, Grey Griffin, Matthew Lillard, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Eric Singer, Tommy Thayer, Jennifer Carpenter, Garry Marshall, Penny Marshall, Doc McGhee, Jason Mewes, Pauley Perrette, Rachel Ramras, Darius Rucker, Kevin Smith

Rating: 5/10 – at the KISS World amusement park, the appearance of the Scarlet Witch and her search for a legendary rock leads to the Mystery Gang and KISS teaming up to unmask the Witch and save the park from closing; not the best of Scooby-Doo’s recent outings, Scooby-Doo! and KISS: Rock and Roll Mystery is overlong – an extended fantasy sequence soon becomes tedious – and doesn’t play to either group’s strengths, while the actual mystery is sadly, quite weak, all of which leaves the movie both disappointing and unrewarding (unless you’re a die hard KISS fan, in which case you’ll probably love it).

Scooby-Doo! and KISS

The Demonology of Desire (2007) / D: Rodrigo Gudiño / 22m

Cast: Bianca Rusu, Tudor Plopeanu, Jewelia Fisico

Rating: 6/10 – a teenage girl (Rusu) torments a younger boy (Plopeanu) who professes his love for her, and leads him into a nightmare of death and madness; regarded as art-core, The Demonology of Desire is less art and more waspish commentary on the futility of young love, but it does feature some strong visuals and a performance from Rusu that makes a virtue of some very poor line readings.

Demonology of Desire, The

The DUFF (2015) / D: Ari Sandel / 101m

Cast: Mae Whitman, Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne, Bianca A. Santos, Skyler Samuels, Romany Malco, Nick Eversman, Chris Wylde, Ken Jeong, Allison Janney

Rating: 5/10 – ordinary-looking Bianca (Whitman) discovers she’s her two best (attractive) friends’ DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend), but finds her way through the necessary social adjustments thanks to best friend Wesley (Amell); pleasant enough, though featuring too many stretches where the audience is likely to lose interest, The DUFF is yet another Cinderella makeover movie that adds little to its old-time scenario.

DUFF, The

10 Movies That Are 40 Years Old This Year

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If 1974 was a banner year, then surprisingly 1975 kept up the level of quality from around the globe. A closer look at the releases for 1975 show an amazing amount of movies that simply shone, and for all kinds of reasons. As with the list for 1974, there could have been a lot more movies included here, and the ten featured below were difficult to choose from out of all the fantastic movies available, but I think these are as representative of what a great year 1975 was as you’re likely to get.

1) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey’s landmark novel was given the best screen treatment possible, one of the best ensemble casts ever, and placed in the hands of a director, Milos Forman, who was able to tease out every nuance and subtlety of emotion that the movie required. At once depressing, sad, comedic and poignant, but ultimately uplifting, this is the finest hour for everyone concerned and one of the few movies to tackle issues of mental health head on and without flinching.

One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest

2) Jaws – The grandaddy of all Summer tentpole movies, it’s still easy to see why Steven Spielberg’s make-or-break movie was so successful, and caused audiences around the world to stay out of the water. With that menacing score by John Williams, one of the most effective jump scares in screen history, a great trio of performances from Shaw, Dreyfuss and Scheider, some of the most intense cat-and-shark sequences ever, it all adds up to a movie that still terrifies as much today as it did back then.

Jaws

3) Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom – Pasolini’s fierce condemnation of the Italian Fascist ruling classes during World War II, and the increasing lack of empathy in modern society, is one long, intentionally nihilistic piece of anguished propaganda. Difficult to watch, with long scenes that test the audience’s endurance, Pasolini’s last movie before he was murdered is shot through with despair and lacking completely in hope, or faith in the goodness of man, and is as powerful a vision of hell on earth as you’re ever likely to see.

Salo

4) Dog Day Afternoon – Based on a true story, Sidney Lumet’s triumphant telling of friendship and compassion and the lengths one person will go to to ensure their friend’s happiness boasts a stunning performance from Al Pacino, and is as tense as any other thriller out there. Mixing high drama with situational comedy borne out of the characters themselves, Dog Day Afternoon is unexpectedly affecting and is one of those movies that reveals different facets to its story with each successive viewing.

Dog Day Afternoon

5) Nashville – The ensemble movie’s highpoint, Robert Altman’s look at the contemporary US political scene is merely a backdrop for some of the most riveting dissections of people’s behaviour and (in)tolerances yet seen in the movies. Full of standout moments (and none more so than Keith Carradine’s rendition of I’m Easy), and with Altman in firm control at the helm, this is another movie that rewards with every viewing.

Nashville

6) Grey Gardens – One of the finest documentaries ever made, Grey Gardens is as compelling as any thriller and as absorbing as any intimate portrait of an unusual lifestyle can be. Produced and co-directed by Albert and David Maysles, the lives of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, “Little Edie”, are highlighted in haunting, intimate detail, and prove that any notions of strangeness in others is merely a matter of misguided perception.

Grey Gardens

7) Picnic at Hanging Rock – Peter Weir’s haunting, immaculately filmed mystery is one of the most memorably eerie movies ever made, its sense of time and place and mood all combining to create a cinematic experience that remains unmatched. A true classic of Australian cinema and the movie that catapulted Weir – deservedly – onto the international scene, it’s as unsettling now as it was back when it was first released.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

8) Dersu Uzala – Kurosawa’s examination of the differences that exist between the old ways of nature and the apparent progress that civilisation brings is enhanced by some stunning cinematography and two magnificent central performances by Yuriy Solomin and Maksim Munzuk. By turns deceptively gripping and subtly elegiac, the movie has an emotional honesty to it that makes the development of the relationship between the explorer and the hunter that much more convincing and affecting.

Dersu Uzala

9) The Man Who Would Be King – One of director John Huston’s favourite projects, this adaptation of a story by Rudyard Kipling is the kind of rip-roaring adventure tale that doesn’t really get made any more, and features drama, comedy, suspense, action and two lovely performances from Sean Connery and Michael Caine. At its core it’s a heartfelt look at an enduring friendship overtaken by one man’s delusion of grandeur, but it’s also a penetrating examination of the abuse of power and the consequences thereof.

Man Who Would Be King, The

10) Shampoo – For some this is Warren Beatty’s finest hour, but the plaudits must go to his co-screenwriter, Robert Towne, for constructing such a beautifully realised satire on the fallout from the sexual revolution that took place in the Sixties and the way in which it gave way to a period of political paranoia. The cast hit all the right notes with ease, Hal Ashby directs with his usual simplicity and attention to framing, and the caustic humour is used more subtly than expected, making the contexts it relates to more important – and effective – than having a slew of one-liners.

Shampoo

Trailer – Spotlight (2015)

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A powerful story of systematic, uncontrolled child abuse committed by the Catholic clergy across decades, and the journalistic investigation that exposed it, Spotlight has all the hallmarks of a real life thriller built in, and a cast that all look to be on top form. The scandal, and the extent of it, can still be felt today, but in telling this true story centred on abuse that happened in Boston, the movie has the potential to act as a microcosm of how and why these things happened – and continue to in other parts of the globe. It’s sure to be fascinating, gripping stuff, and come awards time, in the running for multiple awards.

Hot Pursuit (2015)

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Hot Pursuit

D: Anne Fletcher / 87m

Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Sofía Vergara, John Carroll Lynch, Matthew Del Negro, Michael Mosley, Robert Kazinsky, Richard T. Jones, Benny Nieves, Michael Ray Escamilla, Joaquín Cosio, Vincent Laresca

After an unfortunate incident involving a taser, San Antonio policewoman Rose Cooper (Witherspoon) finds herself stuck in the Evidence Room. She’s the butt of her colleague’s jokes, and things aren’t helped by her too eager nature and strict adherence to the police manual. But when a female officer is needed to help escort Felipe Riva (Laresca), a member of a drug cartel and his wife to Dallas, in the company of renowned Detective Jackson (Jones), her boss, Captain Emmett (Lynch) gives her the job. When they arrive to collect their witness, they find Riva engaged in an argument with his wife, Daniella (Vergara). While Cooper tries to convince Daniella not to take all her clothes and shoes, two armed men in masks break into the house – one of whom has a longhorn tattoo on his wrist – and start shooting. Then two more armed men show up and during the crossfire Riva is shot and killed. Jackson too is shot, leaving Cooper to get Daniella out of there.

They manage to escape, and though Daniella makes various efforts to get away, Cooper keeps hold of her until she can contact the San Antonio police. Two of her fellow officers, Hauser (Del Negro) and Dixon (Mosley), arrive to escort them back but Cooper notices that Hauser has the same longhorn tattoo that one of the armed gunmen had. She and Daniella evade the two officers, but discover later on that they are both wanted in connection with the deaths at Riva’s home; Cooper is even described as armed and dangerous. Having stolen a truck the two women begin to get to know each other, until they learn that there’s a man in the back of the truck. The man is called Randy (Kazinsky), and he’s a felon with an ankle tag who’ll gladly help them get to Dallas in return for the removal of his tag.

They hole up in an Indian casino for the night, but while Cooper and Kazinsky become closer, Daniella makes another escape attempt. Cooper stops her just as Hauser and Dixon arrive at their room, and thanks to Randy’s help they escape onto a tour bus. Pursued by the two crooked cops, as well as the other two armed gunmen, Cooper and Daniella manage to avoid being captured or killed, but when the bus stops, Cooper finds that Daniella has a plan that doesn’t include testifying against her husband’s boss  (Cosio), but taking a more drastic approach. Daniella gets away, and later, when Cooper is back in San Antonio, Captain Emmett commends her for her work in keeping Daniella alive and tells her to take some time off. But Cooper can’t rest knowing what Daniella plans to do, and set out to stop her.

Hot Pursuit - scene

You’re an A-list Oscar winner who’s just made a movie that features what many critics regard as your finest performance, a true life tale that reminded everyone of just how talented an actress you are. But then, what to do next? Another heavy, emotional drama that might attract more awards for your mantelpiece? An ensemble piece that combines comedy and drama to good effect? Something completely different perhaps, something you’ve never tried before, like a sci-fi movie, or even a horror flick? Of all the options and possibilities, what will be your next choice of movie?

If you’re Reese Witherspoon, then the answer is simple: go back to making the kind of comedy movie where mismatched characters learn to become best buddies during a road trip, and which offers all kinds of humorous encounters for a casual audience to laugh at. For such is Hot Pursuit, a formulaic, sporadically amusing comedy that does just enough to stop itself from being completely predictable, and which coasts along for much of its (admittedly) short running time like a student in detention asked to write out the same lines a hundred times.

There is talent here, but it’s in service to a script by David Feeney and John Quaintance that tries for substance but often resorts to the time honoured tradition of having two women insult each other in shouty voices for its humour – though they’re nowhere near the inspired level of abuse that Melissa McCarthy and Rose Byrne hurl at each other in Spy (2015). Aside from one visual gag involving a dead deer, and a short sequence involving a severed finger that leads to Witherspoon performing the Heimlich manoeuvre on a dog, Hot Pursuit moves from scene to scene without too much consideration for what’s gone before, or even what’s ahead. A lot of it doesn’t add up, such as Randy’s ankle tag: one minute it’s a way of their being tracked, the next it’s off and chucked in a river. If there’s a dramatic or even narrative need for this to happen, then it’s hard to work out why.

Fletcher’s previous movie was The Guilt Trip (2012), the Rogen/Streisand team-up that nobody wanted, and while Hot Pursuit is better than that movie, she still seems unable to add a level of madcap energy that most movies of this type require in order to succeed. Without the commitment of Witherspoon and Vergara, the movie would be even more difficult to sit through, and it’s thanks to them that it even partially succeeds. Witherspoon is an old hand at this sort of thing, and handles even the daftest developments with a practised shrug and a “let’s move on”, while Vergara doesn’t quite get out from under the role of pampered, shallow sex object (though there does seem to be a competition between the two actresses in terms of who can show the most cleavage).

Rating: 5/10 – if you were to switch off your brain and just go with the flow, Hot Pursuit would prove to be pretty enjoyable, but alas its tired scenario and merely acceptable heroics wouldn’t fool anyone who’s paying attention; not as lame as some other, similar comedies, but not quite the rib-tickler it’s trying to be either.

Murder of a Cat (2014)

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Murder of a Cat

D: Gillian Greene / 101m

Cast: Fran Kranz, Nikki Reed, J.K. Simmons, Greg Kinnear, Blythe Danner, Leo Nam, Brian Turk, Aidan Andrews

Clinton Moisey (Kranz) is still smarting after the closure of his comic book store, thanks to the arrival of a large supermarket called Ford’s. He lives with his mother, Edie (Danner) and his pet cat Mouser. Recently, Mouser has been disappearing for long periods and doesn’t seem his old self. When Clinton takes Mouser to the vet’s, it’s all put down to his advanced age. Clinton isn’t so sure, but things take a darker turn the next morning when he wakes to find Mouser lying dead in the road outside his home, and with a bolt from a crossbow sticking out of him.

Clinton calls the police. Sheriff Hoyle (Simmons) arrives but decides there’s not much he can do except file a report and hope for the best. Clinton is outraged by this, and decides to find out who killed Mouser by himself. A local boy (Andrews) tells him that he saw Mouser just after he was hit by the bolt, and it wasn’t outside Clinton’s home. When the boy shows him the spot where he saw Mouser, Clinton is shocked to see a lost pet poster that shows a picture of Mouser, but under another name, and with an address on it. He finds the address and encounters Greta (Reed). It transpires that her home was where Mouser was disappearing off to. After some initial suspicion about each other’s motives, she and Clinton agree to try and find out who killed Mouser.

Greta recognises the bolt as one that would have been sold at Ford’s. She used to work there until recently, but doesn’t say why she left. At Ford’s they discover that the brand of crossbow used is only sold in that one store, but when the store’s owner, Al Ford (Kinnear), refuses to show them details of any purchases, Clinton causes a scene and is thrown out. Later, he sneaks into the store’s warehouse and finds that the shelf where the crossbows are kept is empty; he also learns that one of the employees, Yi Kim (Nam) is using the crossbow boxes to remove computer equipment from the store and sell it to a fence.

Things become further complicated when Clinton misreads Greta’s growing interest in him, and Sheriff Hoyle is revealed to be dating his mother. When he tells the sheriff about Yi Kim’s activities, he manages to persuade Hoyle to go to Kim’s house and search it. They don’t find anything, but Clinton swipes Yi’s phone. On it he finds several photos that prove what Yi is doing, but when he takes this evidence to Al Ford, he finds the store owner depressed over his impending divorce, and certain that the fence Yi is selling to is actually Greta…

Murder of a Cat - scene

On the face of it, Murder of a Cat is a quirky, noir-tinged murder mystery with an unlikely victim, and an even more unlikely “detective”. Clinton Moisey is an adolescent trapped in an adult’s body, an older, less hyper Fred Figglehorn perhaps, but with the same selfish, socially awkward behaviour and lack of empathy towards others. When he implores Sheriff Hoyle to find Mouser’s murder, his outrage at Hoyle’s disinterest is evident but also a little unnerving. It’s the intensity that makes Clinton seem like a crazy person, and while the movie spends quite a lot of time supporting his search for justice, where the narrative takes him actually robs his cause of any emotional investment made by the viewer. As the thefts from Ford’s take priority over the murder investigation, so Clinton becomes less intense (if still determined), and his shaggy mop top gives way to a more coiffured hairstyle, changing both his look and his attitude.

By providing Clinton with a makeover, the movie ultimately robs him of the demanding, aggressive, petulant behaviour that makes him stand out in the first place. In short, he mellows, and while this may have seemed like a great idea for a character arc, it actually means the opposite: Clinton becomes less interesting as the movie goes on, and other characters – Ford, in particular – take over. It’s a strange process to watch, as a movie’s main character, though still driving the narrative forward, ends up being a bit of a bystander in his own story. Thanks to the script by Robert Snow and Christian Magalhaes, the movie never overcomes this approach and often stalls as Clinton struggles to make the next connection in the mystery. It’s as if they didn’t trust his dogged determination – a trait all the great detectives share – to fully engage the audience, and were uncertain if his way of behaving would invoke any sympathy.

The movie is further undone by some trite and unconvincing dialogue, some of which sounds so awkward that the cast do well in dealing with it all. Kinnear is saddled with some of the stiffest lines in recent memory – “I am a phony, kid. You were right about that. My whole life’s been an act” is one of the more memorable challenges he has to overcome, but there are plenty more where that came from, and though as mentioned above the cast do their best, it’s still too noticeable for comfort.

Of the cast, Kranz is a committed Clinton, absurdly childish and arrogant but lacking the support from the script and from Greene to make Clinton more likeable. Reed is efficient but used mostly to fill in the blanks in the story (she has a lot of exposition to deal with), while Simmons and Danner tread water with characters who come perilously close to being stereotypes. It’s Kinnear who makes the most impact though, taking an unevenly detailed character and making Ford the most interesting role by the movie’s end. It’s a small triumph that boosts Murder of a Cat in its last half hour, and without it, would have made the movie end on a whimper.

This is Greene’s first feature, but even though she’s the wife of Sam Raimi, it’s clear she hasn’t learnt too much from him, directing the majority of scenes with a flat, often bland approach that hurts the movie tonally and waters down both the drama and the often haphazard comedy elements, making some parts of the movie feel undeveloped. It’s a shame as there is the germ of a really good idea here, but sadly, it could – and should – have been a whole lot better.

Rating: 5/10 – a missed opportunity for everyone concerned, and the kind of movie that proves endlessly frustrating to watch, Murder of a Cat loses ground quickly and never recovers; it aims for quirky and bizarre but in reality is actually tedious and too rudimentary to work effectively throughout.

Inside Out (2015)

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Inside Out

D: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen / 94m

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

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

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

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

Inside Out - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mini-Review: A Little Chaos (2014)

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Little Chaos, A

D: Alan Rickman / 116m

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

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

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

Little Chaos, A - scene

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

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

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

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

10 Spoof Movie Posters

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

1 – Fruitvale Station (2013)

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

Fruitvale Station

2 – Jaws (1975)

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

Jaws

3 – Taken 2 (2012)

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

Taken 2

4 – Rain Man (1988)

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

Rain Man

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

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

Star Wars Episode 1

6 – Se7en (1995)

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

Se7en

7 – Up (2009)

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

Up

8 – Goldfinger (1964)

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

Goldfinger

9 – The Constant Gardener (2005)

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

Constant Gardener, The

10 – Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

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

Fifty Shades of Grey

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

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Lake Placid vs Anaconda

D: A.B. Stone / 91m

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

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

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

Lake Placid vs Anaconda - scene

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

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

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

 

Sharknado 3

D: Anthony C. Ferrante / 88m

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

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

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

Sharknado 3 - scene

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

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

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

Careful What You Wish For (2015)

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Careful What You Wish For

D: Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum / 91m

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

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

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

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

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

Nick Jonas in Careful What You Wish For

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ant-Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trailer – The Good Dinosaur (2015)

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

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

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Fifty Shades of Grey

D: Sam Taylor-Johnson / 125m

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

Ten things that Fifty Shades of Grey has taught us:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Face of an Angel, The

D: Michael Winterbottom / 100m

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

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

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

Face of an Angel, The - scene

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

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

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

Safelight (2015)

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Safelight

D: Tony Aloupis / 83m

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

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

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

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

Safelight - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet Me There (2014)

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Meet Me There

D: Lex Lybrand / 93m

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

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

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

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

Meet Me There - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trailer – The Revenant (2015)

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

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

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Death of Superman Lives

D: Jon Schnepp / 104m

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

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

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

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

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

Death of Superman Lives - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We'll Never Have Paris

D: Jocelyn Towne, Simon Helberg / 92m

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

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

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

We'll Never Have Paris - scene

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

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

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

Woman in Gold (2015)

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Woman in Gold

D: Simon Curtis / 109m

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

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

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

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

Woman in Gold - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trailer – The Finest Hours (2016)

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

Nancy Drew… Reporter (1939)

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Nancy Drew... Reporter

D: William Clemens / 68m

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

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

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

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

Nancy Drew... Reporter - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 Best Explosions in the Movies

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

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

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

10 – Independence Day (1996) – The White House

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

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

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

Die Hard

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

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

Tropic Thunder

7 – Stealth (2005) – Escape from the hangar

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

Stealth

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

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

Lethal Weapon 3

5 – The Dark Knight (2008) – Gotham Hospital

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

Dark Knight, The

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

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

Long Kiss Goodnight, The

3 – Speed (1994) – Bus meets plane

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

Speed

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

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

Cutthroat Island

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

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

Blown Away

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