Izulu lamí (2008)

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Izulu lami

aka My Secret Sky

D: Madoda Ncayiyana / 96m

Cast: Sobahle Mhkabase, Sibonelo Malinga, Tshepang Mohlomi, Sanele Ndawo, Sizwe Xaba, Slindile Nodangala, Michael Gritten, Peter Gardner

When their mother dies, Thembi (Mhkabase) and Khwezi (Malinga) are at first looked after by their aunt Juba (Nodangala). But when it transpires that she’s only there to take what she can from their mother’s belongings, and a particular mat that their mother made is missing, their aunt soon leaves. With no money or food to get by with, and with no other family to turn to, Thembi – who has kept her mother’s mat hidden – and Khwezi decide to travel from their village to the city to sell the mat to the priest who bought others in the past.

Despite not knowing where he lives, or where his church is located, the siblings set out on foot, eventually hitching a ride on a train that takes them into the city. After wandering around for a while, they meet a young boy called Chili-Bite (Mohlomi) who is part of a gang of children living on the streets. He takes them under his wing and gives them a place of stay. Thembi tells him about the priest, and Chili-Bite assures her that he’ll help find him. When they see him talking to a white man, Tony (Gritten), Chili-Bite tells Thembi and Khwezi that this man knows the priest and will take them to him the next day.

When the time comes, the man takes Thembi and Khwezi to the home of a black man who is looking for a child bride. When he tries to confirm her virginity, she fights him off with Khwezi’s help and they manage to escape. Realising that Chili-Bite knew what was meant to happen, she confronts him before leaving. But she doesn’t go far and the next day Chili-Bite reveals he can take her and Khwezi to the priest – but when he tries he can’t find the church. Thembi challenges him but he walks off. When she then tells Khwezi they need to return to their village, he refuses to go with her and blames their mother’s mat for all the trouble they’ve been through.

Khwezi follows Chili-Bite while Thembi assumes he’s behind her. When she realises he isn’t she stops in the street until two nuns pass by. She follows them to a church and there finds the priest. He remembers her mother and is keen to see the mat. But when she returns to Chili-Bite’s hideout she finds that Khwezi has done something that will test their relationship – and both their futures.

Izulu lami - scene

A movie that has the feel of a modern-day Dickens novel, Izulu lamí is a charming look at the perils of big city life as seen through the eyes of two innocents abroad. With its trio of first-time performances – and in Mhkabase and Malinga’s case their only performances – Ncayiyana’s ode to childhood hope and perseverance is an uneven yet enjoyable movie that occasionally tries to punch above its weight, but is all the more admirable for trying.

Though juxtaposing the quieter, simpler village life Thembi and Khwezi are used to, with the noise and bustle of the city of Durban, Ncayiyana maintains a measured approach to his and co-producer Julie Frederikse’s script that, ultimately, drains the movie of any tension or drama. Even when Khwezi’s actions threaten his relationship with Thembi, it’s portrayed with such objectivity that he could have done something far less terrible, and her reaction would have been the same – and so would have the framing, camerawork and direction. It’s indicative of the movie’s main problem throughout: the less than involved presence of its director.

From this, the casual viewer may well be put off from seeing the movie through to the end, believing that they’ve seen all they need to by the halfway mark (or possibly sooner, once they arrive in Durban in fact). For the early scenes before Thembi and Khwezi get on the train are more interesting than what follows. The brief scenes of mock parental persecution by Aunt Juba, though expected, are well played by Nodangala and the two children, and have that grim inevitably that is familiar in these situations. But while the movie looks as if it’s going to be a battle of wills between the aunt and her niece and nephew, the script has them heading off to find their future in the big city instead, and while this is handled with a fair degree of persuasiveness, it’s the nature of what happens to them that brings things to a dramatic standstill on too many occasions.

While it’s clear that Chili-Bite is “interested” in Thembi, his decision to put her in harm’s way via Tony is at odds with the character’s innate humanity (yes, he’s a street urchin, and yes he’s out to get whatever he can, but the script makes Chili-Bite too likeable for him to be a bad guy; plus he has too much of the Artful Dodger about him). And the tone, quite light-hearted and occasionally whimsical for the most part, is shredded by the attack on Thembi by the man Tony takes her to. It’s a dark, moderately uncomfortable sequence that doesn’t fit with the rest of the script, and seems included because otherwise there would be very little dramatic incident in the movie at all. And the ending, though expectedly upbeat, leaves the trio of Thembi, Khwezi, and Chili-Bite exactly as they were when they met. For a movie that shows two young children on a (not quite so) dangerous journey, there’s no arc for them to follow as individuals.

Thankfully, Mhkabase and Malinga prove enchanting to watch, even if they do stumble over the occasional line of dialogue, and their fresh, natural performances give the movie a much needed boost to offset the paucity of ideas that permeates throughout the rest of the movie. Mhkabase is so assured it’s a shame she hasn’t made any more movies, while Malinga has the best pout of any child actor in recent memory. They’re also credible as brother and sister, their arguments with each other brought to life effortlessly and with conviction. When they share a scene together it’s often hard to decide which one to watch more closely. As the conniving Chili-Bite, Mohlomi is the more relaxed and he gives an appropriately brash performance, and just this side of broad caricature (watch him as he walks along with his gang). Together, all three evince a mutual respect and reliance for each other that is both touching and heartfelt.

Rating: 5/10 – overall a disappointing viewing experience, and with too many coincidences driving the narrative forward, Izulu lamí lacks a strong enough storyline to be entirely effective; with good performances allied to some poetic imagery and a degree of spirituality attached to the children’s quest, there’s still enough to warrant a more than cursory look.

Nh10 (2015)

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Nh10

aka NH10

D: Navdeep Singh / 106m

Cast: Anushka Sharma, Neil Bhoopalam, Darshan Kumaar, Jaswant Singh, Yogendra Singh, Ravi Jhankal, Ravi Beniwal, Deepti Naval, Tanya Purohit, Kanchan Sharma, Tushar Grover

Meera (Sharma) and her husband Arjun (Bhoopalam) are attending a party that Meera doesn’t really want to go to. When she gets an emergency call from her work, she leaves by herself. While driving she is almost forced off the road by thugs attempting to rob her. She escapes but is left so traumatised by the experience that, when an otherwise unhelpful police officer suggests she buy a gun, that’s exactly what she does. To make amends for not being with her, Arjun suggests they get away for Meera’s upcoming birthday. He books a private villa and they set off on the long journey along National Highway 10.

But along the way, Arjun decides to take a short cut, a bypass road that will shorten their journey considerably. They stop at a roadside Dhaba for something to eat, only to witness the abduction of a young couple by a group of men. Arjun attempts to intervene but the leader of the men, Satbir (Kumaar) strikes him; they then head off. Meera and Arjun continue on their journey but Arjun spies the men’s vehicle on a spur road and angry at the way he was treated, decides to follow them. The couple find the men’s vehicle and Arjun goes after them – with Meera’s gun. He finds them but is horrified to see them beating and kicking both the woman, Pinky (K. Sharma) and her partner, Mukesh (Grover). It becomes clear that Satbir and his comrades are about to commit an honour killing: Pinky is Satbir’s sister and she has married outside her caste.

Back in their car, Meera encounters Chhote (Beniwal), a simpleton who is with the group of men. She goes in search of Arjun who has witnessed Satbir pouring poison into Pinky’s mouth. But they are both captured, and are forced to watch as Pinky is killed by Satbir using Meera’ gun; Mukesh is then bludgeoned to death. During this, Chhote picks up the gun and Meera and Arjun manage to get it from him, but in doing so, the gun goes off and Chhote is killed. They run away but are pursued by Satbir and his friends, one of whom, Omi (Singh), is Chhote’s older brother. One of the gang catches up with them, but before Meera can intervene with the gun, Arjun is badly injured. Leaving him in a railway underpass, Meera goes in search of help. But when she finds the nearest police station, she also finds that things are about to get a whole lot worse.

Nh10 - scene

With its standard plot of urban couple versus rural gang, Nh10 contains – and relies on – several key elements from earlier movies such as Straw Dogs (1971) and Eden Lake (2008) (to name but two), but its unfamiliar setting and unwavering performance from Anushka Sharma stops it from becoming too derivative or banal.

It begins promisingly too, with the dynamics of Meera and Arjun’s marriage quickly and concisely outlined. Meera is the more successful of the two, and Arjun finds it hard to put aside, or hide, his dissatisfaction. When the police question his allowing Meera to travel by herself at night when she was attacked, his already wounded pride leads to the acquisition of the gun, but it’s as much to show that he can protect her as for her own peace of mind. And when he pursues the gang, against Meera’s increasingly anxious wishes, his later assertion that he was trying to do the right thing seems horribly disingenuous. By making Arjun the weaker, less confident half of the relationship, the script by Sudip Sharma sets up the movie’s second half and Meera’s resourcefulness with a confidence and an ease that belies the waywardness that is to come.

For once Meera makes the decision to leave Arjun and go for help, the tone of the movie – and its dramatic potential – becomes locked in service to the revenge motif that Chhote’s death has set in motion. As Meera encounters further danger at every turn, and finds herself trapped in a nightmare world where Indian law ends at the site of the last mall in the town where she and Arjun came from, the movie ratchets up the tension, but does so by piling coincidence on top of contrivance, and at the expense of its own credibility. In doing so, and despite Singh’s expertise in directing, there’s an inevitability about things that lets the movie down badly, and the movie struggles to maintain any sense of danger as Meera escapes the gang time after time.

As the movie drains of tension and excitement on its way to what feels like it should be a hard-hitting nihilistic conclusion, Nh10 provides enough revenge to satisfy the average viewer, and is defiantly graphic about it. These scenes benefit from – as mentioned above – an uncompromising performance by Sharma that at least adds some depth to events as they unfold, and which counteracts the descent into conformity that ensues. Sharma’s cold, dead-eyed stare in the movie’s final ten minutes is completely unnerving to watch and shows exactly how far Meera has come in such a short space of time.

The villains prove all too disposable by the time Meera makes her stand, and the introduction of a chief villain towards the end – who conveniently provides Meera with an excuse for what she feels compelled to do – lacks the kind of impact the script is aiming for. Singh makes the final showdown as exciting and horrifying as he can but with Meera’s invincibility already pre-determined, the outcome isn’t as rewarding as expected.

Rating: 6/10 – a good first half is squandered by the requirements of the second, leaving Nh10 feeling like it’s left itself high and dry; with a commanding performance by Sharma that compensates for most of the movie’s shortcomings, the movie ultimately lacks true audacity and cohesion.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

D: Ana Lily Amirpour / 101m

Cast: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marshall Manesh, Mozhan Marnò, Dominic Rains, Rome Shadanloo, Milad Eghbali

In the fictional Iranian town of Bad City, Arash (Marandi) lives with his cat and junkie father Hossein (Manesh). His most treasured possession is his car, but when his father’s dealer, Saeed (Rains) claims payment for some of the money owed him, Arash is forced to hand over the keys to his car. Saeed shows off the car to a local prostitute, Atti (Marnò), but is spooked by a cloaked figure he sees in the rear view mirror. Later that evening he meets a girl (Vand) on the street and takes her back to his apartment. When he makes his move, what happens next comes as quite a shock: she sprouts fangs and attacks him, biting him in the neck and killing him.

Outside, Arash has come to get his car back. The girl passes him as she leaves, and for a moment, there’s a connection. Arash goes up to Saeed’s apartment and finds his body. He takes Saeed’s stash of drugs and his money, and leaves. The next night, the girl menaces Hossein and a small boy (Eghbali) on the street but spares them both. Later that same night, Arash dresses up as Dracula to attend a party. There he runs into Shaydah, a young woman whose family he works for as a gardener. Wanting to make an impression he lets her have some drugs for free; in return she persuades to take a pill himself.

When it comes to making it back home, Arash finds it more difficult than he expected. While standing staring at a lamp-post, he’s spotted by the girl. They begin a conversation. When Arash takes her hand and realises how cold it is, he gives her a hug in a clumsy attempt at warming her up. Surprised by this unexpected show of kindness and sympathy, the girl takes Arash back to her apartment. They discover a shared love of music, and bond further. When Hossein questions Arash about his being out all night, he’s less than impressed when Arash can’t even tell his father the girl’s name.

The girl spends some time with Atti, then at Arash’s request, meets him at the nearby power plant. She tries to warn him off, telling him she’s done some very bad things, but Arash is dismissive of her claims. She walks off, leaving Arash confused and frustrated. When Hossein’s withdrawal symptoms cause an argument the next day, Arash snaps and throws him – and the cat – out and gives him some of Saeed’s drugs and money to get by with. Hossein visits Atti and makes her take heroin. The girl arrives and in a fit of rage, attacks Hossein, the consequences of which will lead Arash to make the toughest decision of his life.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night - scene

Shot in glorious black and white by Lyle Vincent, and with the town of Taft, California standing in (very effectively) for Iran, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a small, almost perfectly formed horror movie that avoids genre clichés and provides its story with a rich visual backdrop. In making what could be described as the first Iranian vampire western (with Mexicali tinges), writer/director Amirpour has come up with a spellbinding tale of reluctant desire that resonates far strongly than it perhaps has a right to.

Bad City is the archetypal place where bad things happen to good people, but even worse things happen to bad people. The worst thing in Bad City is the girl, a pale music-loving, wide-eyed monster who preys on the people of Bad City with seeming impunity – with all the bodies that have been dumped in a ravine on the outskirts of town it seems she’s been pretty busy, and for a long while. Used to being alone, and reliant on music for access to long-buried emotions and feelings, the girl feeds when necessary, but has no compunction about doing it. When Arash’s attentions take her by surprise, the girl regains something she hasn’t had for such a long time: hope. Distrusting it at first she tries to sabotage her relationship with Arash before it’s properly begun. But his persistence renews and encourages that hope, and before long she too has to make a decision that will be the toughest she’s ever had to make.

Vand – despite having precious little dialogue to work with – gives a tremendous performance, her sallow features and piercing stare perfectly expressing her curiosity about, and yearning for, a normal life. She makes the girl’s need for Arash so completely understandable – even if there are some obvious obstacles that will prove difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. But while the girl’s wistful longing is touching to witness, Amirpour and Vand ensure that the character’s darker habits aren’t glossed over: the scene where she threatens the little boy with taking his eyes out of his skull is chilling for its raw viciousness.

Marandi plays Arash as a brooding though needy soul, his good looks and cool car no solution for the emptiness he feels eating away inside him. With his good looks and easy-going charm, Arash should have no problem dating women, but there’s something off about him, and they realise this. Marandi expresses Arash’s confusion and inner turmoil over this with quiet persuasion, and makes Arash as desperate for some form of human connection as the girl is. The scene they share at the power plant is one of the most affecting, most awkwardly romantic scenes of recent memory.

Amirpour – making her feature debut – lifts motifs and inspiration from a variety of disparate sources but melds them into one confidently assembled whole. The tone of the movie stumbles on occasion – a scene that sees Atti dancing with a balloon feels like it belongs in another movie entirely – but for each misstep, Amirpour redeems herself with a moment of striking imagery, such as the sight of the girl, her chador billowing out behind her like bat wings, riding a skateboard toward the camera. She also shows a confident use of form and content, framing her characters against often overwhelming and impersonal backgrounds, emphasising their emotional discomfort and the difficulty of breaking free of the chains that bind them. With an equally adept use of light against shadow, and a creative sense of when to glamourise the black and white images, Amirpour displays a skill that easily bodes well for any future endeavours.

Rating: 8/10 – with lush visuals and one of the best scores and soundtrack of recent years, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a refreshingly original take on the vampire story; with a captivating performance from Vand and self-assured direction from Amirpour, it’s a movie that lingers in the memory long after its final image has faded from the screen.

Rebels of the Neon God (1992)

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Rebels of the Neon God

Original title: Qing shao nian nuo zha 

D: Tsai Ming-liang / 106m

Cast: Chen Chao-jung, Lee Kang-sheng, Wang Yu-Wen, Lu Yi-Ching, Tien Miao, Jen Chang-bin

Ah-tse (Chen) lives in a flat where the drain in the kitchen has backed up and water covers the floor. He’s not too concerned about it; instead he’s more interested in stealing money from telephone booths with his friend Ah-ping (Jen). He has a relationship with Ah-kuei (Wang) that he’s not fully committed to, and no sense of purpose. Elsewhere, student Hsiao-kang (Lee) is bored with his studies and with his life in general. His relationship with his mother (Lu) and father (Tien) is strained and he spends most of his time in his room.

Hsiao-kang’s father is a taxi driver. When he sees his son out of school one morning he elects to take him there. At a junction, his father is held up by Ah-tse, who is on his motor bike (with Ah-kuei on the back). Ah-tse’s anger at being scolded by a taxi driver prompts him to smash the taxi’s side mirror. Later that night, Ah-tse and Ah-ping meet up with Ah-kuei and they go out. Ah-kuei gets drunk and the two friends take her to a hotel where they leave her to sleep it off. The next day, Hsiao-kang drops out of the tutorial school he’s attending and collects the refund that’s due. He buys a cap gun and heads to a nearby arcade, which is where he sees Ah-tse and Ah-kuei. Recognising them, he decides to watch them. They meet up with Ah-ping at a restaurant then they head back to the arcade; at closing time they hide in the toilets until it’s locked up. Hsiao-kang hides too and sees them pry open several of the arcade machines and remove the motherboards.

The next day, Hsiao-kang’s father discovers he’s no longer enrolled at the tutorial school. Meanwhile, Hsiao-kang has found out that Ah-kuei works at a skating rink. When she meets Ah-tse after her shift is over, they end up at a hotel where they spend the night. While they’re there, Hsiao-kang takes the opportunity to vandalise Ah-tse’s motorbike, rendering it unrideable. He goes home but is refused entry by his father. The next morning, when Ah-tse finds his motor bike, the cost of its repair is more than he can afford, unless he sells the motherboards. But when he and Ah-ping take them to the owner of another arcade, his hopes for a quick sale don’t go as planned…

Rebels of the Neon God - scene

There’s a moment towards the end of Rebels of the Neon God when Ah-kuei suggests that she and Ah-tse “leave this place”. Ah-tse responds by asking where she wants to go, but Ah-kuei is unable to answer him. It’s a moment that perfectly encapsulates the message behind writer/director Tsai’s foray into the lives of Taiwanese youth: that disaffection and ennui are powerful motivators toward isolation. None of the three main characters has a place in the world that gives them purpose. Ah-tse appears to be the more focused of the three, his petty larcenies and casual insolence informing his personality and making him seem as if he knows what he’s doing. Ah-kuei has little identity beyond that given to her by being with Ah-tse and Ah-ping; otherwise she’s alone and struggling to connect with others. Hsiao-kang is the most alienated, his intolerance and disdain for others a reaction to his parents’ expectations of him.

As the lives of all three intersect and criss-cross, Tsai focuses on the ways in which they fail to connect emotionally with themselves, each other, and the world around them. Ah-tse uses the people around him, Ah-ping as his willing accomplice in crime, and Ah-kuei as an accessory he’s barely concerned about. When the three of them are together he acts as an unelected leader, deciding what they’ll do and where they’ll go. He looks for power in whichever way he can find it, all to make him feel superior. But it’s a hollow superiority, as shown when his plan to sell the motherboards backfires, and his sense of place in the world is rudely undermined. With his bravado severely compromised and his self-belief in tatters, Ah-kuei’s increasing need to understand the parameters of their relationship forces him to consider someone else for the first time. It’s a transitive moment and allows their relationship a moment of hope.

Hsiao-kang though is completely lost, unable to connect to anyone except in the most basic way and even when it would be of benefit to him; at one point he visits a phone dating service but can’t pick up the phone when someone is calling. His feelings are compromised so badly he can’t even react when he’s thrown out of his own home. His attack on Ah-tse’s motor bike is less of a chance at payback for his father and more of an expression of self-loathing.

Tsai positions his characters against a neon-lit, brightly dramatic background, as Taipei’s nightlife throbs and pivots and vibrates around them. It helps highlight the level of dissociation the characters exhibit, and serves as a dispassionate character all its own. It’s an added layer in a movie that examines the connections and disparities our emotions can lead us into, and which leaves it all open-ended as to where its characters will end up and how withdrawn they’ll continue to be. The cast handle their roles well, though Wang’s character is given little development beyond her need for physical approbation. Lee is moody and recalcitrant as Hsiao-kang, capturing the character’s deep-rooted antagonism with quiet skill. And Chen displays the cocksure bluster that Ah-tse uses to make himself feel important.

With it’s attempts at lyricism amidst the garish neon wasteland of Taipei’s arcade district, offset with the colder austerity of its daytime appearance, and the poorly maintained rooms that Ah-tse uses, the movie paints a vivid portrait of a society and a generation unable to come to terms with its lack of direction.

Rating: 8/10 – with a poster of James Dean from Rebel Without a Cause (1955) as its guide, Rebels of the Neon God is an effective, thought-provoking look at teenage alienation; with a script that provides no easy solutions for its characters, it’s a sombre piece and with an unexpectedly emotional core.

Araya (1959)

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Araya

D: Margot Benacerraf / 82m

Narrator: José Ignacio Cabrujas

In northeastern Venezuela there is a barren, largely inhospitable peninsula called Araya. Home to a vast salt deposit, the area is harsh and uninviting, but it’s also home to various families that work the salt flats or fish the nearby sea. From the villages of Manicuare and El Rincón, they make a life for themselves that revolves around the collection of salt and fish each and every day, the two items that provide the basis for their community and their reason for being there. It’s hard, labour intensive work that offers little in the way of reward, but has become a generational necessity: for these Venezuelans there’s simply nowhere else to go.

Araya follows three families through the course of an average day. The Salazar family are salineros – salt marsh workers. Their day begins at six in the morning as they take the salt that has been selected overnight and pile it up into huge pyramid-like piles. It’s punishing work that has to be done so early in the day because of how high the temperature rises later. Even so, it’s hot work and the salt crystals can be damaging to the workers’ skin, causing ulcers and open sores. By late morning their work is done and the Salazar family can return home, making the six mile journey to Manicuare on foot beneath the blazing sun. Once there they can tend to work needed to be done at home before going to sleep.

Further along the coastline, the Ortiz family come down to the shoreline to cast their nets out into the sea. Even their youngest, Carmen, has work to do: she collects coral and shells. Once the nets have been retrieved, the fish that has been caught is divided up and some of it is taken to El Rincón and Manicuare for sale to the villagers. The fish is the main ingredient in everyone’s diet, and is rarely passed up.

At night the men of the Pereda family toil in the salt marshes, selecting and cutting blocks of salt for the Salazars and the other salineros to process the next day. Again, it’s hard work as they push their boats through the shallow waters and haul the blocks of salt onto them. And each family repeats the same actions the next day, and the day after that… until industrialisation reaches them, and their skills – handed down from generation to generation – become superseded by machines.

Araya - scene

Although it has the look and feel of a documentary, Araya is intended to be viewed as a tone poem, Cabrujas’ narration deliberately written to evince a feeling not often associated with this type of “exposé” – an appreciation of the lyrical beauty that underpins the lives of the people who live in such a barren corner of the world. As such, and with the benefit of seeing the movie over sixty-five years since it was made, it’s fair to say that Araya works as both a tone poem and a documentary, and is successful whichever way it’s approached.

Part of the movie’s appeal, and one of its main strengths, is that while it celebrates the hard life these families lead, it also presents their lives in such a matter-of-fact way that there’s no room for pity or sentimentality; these people lead their lives in the way that’s portrayed, and they don’t complain about it. Benacerraf is also wise enough to avoid interviewing anyone, and by doing so, she gains more “mileage” out of being an observer than perhaps she would have done by asking a lot of pointed questions. The viewer can see all he or she needs to know about the inhabitants of Araya, as well as the obvious pride they take in the work that they do. As the movie shows more and more of the structured, unchanging lifestyle they lead, it shows how simple and uncomplicated that lifestyle is, and how suited they are to it.

Benacerraf – an acclaimed feminist filmmaker and founder of Venezuela’s Cineteca Nacional, and Fundavisual Latina – also delves into the history of the area, revealing the existence of a 17th century fortress that overlooks the area (but which is now a ruin), and which was built to provide security for the various traders whose cargoes of salt were prey to pirates. It’s difficult to see now just how busy the peninsula must have been despite its unforgiving nature, especially when the viewer sees the nearby wood, where the trees are so denuded that their branches look like withered bones. It’s images such as these, beautifully filmed by Giuseppe Nisoli beneath the blazing, cloud-free canopy of the sky, that highlights the stark, natural beauty of the peninsula.

Whether the camera is following a salinero carrying a basket full of salt on his head, or a member of the Ortiz family sorting through the hundreds of fish that have been caught, or the arrival in El Rincón of the water truck – 1,850 gallons to be shared amongst sixty houses – or the member of the Salazar family, Luisa, who makes clay pots without the benefit of a wheel, Araya is a visual feast, fascinating and poignant and continually astonishing in the way in which the peninsula’s inhabitants have carved out a rewarding way of life for themselves.

When the movie was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959, it shared the Cannes International Critics Prize with Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour. And yet it was never picked up for widespread or international distribution, an outcome that seems ludicrous now that Araya has been restored and can be seen for the breathtaking experience it actually is. That it took fifty years for the movie to be recognised for its tremendous accomplishments just goes to show how wrong the movie business can be sometimes. Thank the deity of your choice then that it’s been rescued from obscurity, and can take us back to a time and a place where life – hard, exacting, rewarding life – was lived each day by a group of Venezuelans who were probably unknown to the rest of their country.

Rating: 9/10 – hypnotic, engaging, rich in detail, affecting, beautifully shot, powerful in its simplicity – Araya is all these things and much more beside; with its poetic leanings enhancing the visuals, the movie works on several levels and succeeds on all of them.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004)

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Place Promised in Our Early Days, The

Original title: Kumo no mukô, yakusoku no basho

D: Makoto Shinkai / 90m

Cast: Hidetaka Yoshioka, Masato Hagiwara, Yuka Nanri, Unshô Ishizuka, Kazuhiko Inoue, Risa Mizuno

In an alternate reality, Japan is a divided nation. The northern half, Hokkaido, is ruled by the Union, while Honshu and everything else to the south is overseen by the US. At some point after the division, a tower that stretches up and beyond the clouds was built on Hokkaido, but the reason for its having been built is unknown.

One summer, two young friends, Hiroki (Yoshioka) and Takuya (Hagiwara), decide to build a plane that will enable them to fly to the top of the Tower (and maybe find out what it does). They spend all their spare time finding parts for the plane and assembling it, and are aided by their employer during school breaks, Mr Okabe (Ishizuka). One day, Takuya finds himself talking to a girl both friends know called Sayuri (Nanri). He tells her about the plane and she tags along when he next goes to the abandoned train station where they’re building it. Despite, Hiromi’s doubts about her being included in their plans, her enthusiasm for the project wins him over.

As they grow older, and the plane nears completion, Sayuri begins to have strange dreams that are connected to the Tower. One such dream sees the Tower exploding and causing tremendous destruction. Shortly after, Sayuri falls ill and is taken to Tokyo for treatment. Three years pass, during which Hiroki and Takuya stop work on the plane and go their separate ways. The political situation worsens between the Union and the US, and war is imminent. Sayuri has been asleep for the last three years, but she has been studied during this time, as her dream activity is reflected in the activity of the Tower. When Sayuri dreams, the Tower produces sufficient energy to overlay a separate reality on the area immediately around it. The scientists studying the Tower and Sayuri believe that if she were to wake up, the Tower would replace the existing reality with another, completely different one.

With Takuya being a part of the research team investigating the Tower, he learns of the connection to Sayuri and determines to free her from the hospital where she’s being kept. He enlists Hiroki’s aid in completing the plane and together they aim to fly it, with Sayuri aboard, close enough to wake her, and then to destroy the Tower with a missile. But they choose to do this just as the war breaks out, and the likelihood of their being successful is drastically reduced.

Place Promised in Our Early Days, The - scene

If your experience of Japanese anime has been restricted to the movies produced by Studio Ghibli, you could be forgiven for thinking that movies such as Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and Arrietty (2010) are the pinnacle of that particular genre. But there are so many other fine examples out there that it’s sometimes worth the reminder that Studio Ghibli isn’t the only purveyor of tremendous Japanese anime.

Because such is the case with The Place Promised in Our Early Days. Starting out as a coming of age tale that is both affecting, and quietly and unobtrusively observed, the movie introduces its three main characters with a winning amiability. Hiroki and Takuya’s friendship is warm, committed and unselfish; they’re a good match too in terms of their intelligence and skills. And Sayuri is the girl who binds their relationship even tighter, making it stronger and more deep-rooted. The script, by director Shinkai from his own story, resists the temptation to introduce a love triangle, and the movie benefits immeasurably from this, the viewer unencumbered with having to worry as to which one of Hiroki and Takuya will be chosen over the other. Instead, two close friends become three, and each share in each other’s ambitions and concerns.

When the story changes focus in the second half and becomes more of a thriller, Shinkai retains the trio’s connections and shows how time and distance has failed to erode their bond. This allows for an emotional follow-through that adds to the increased pace and race-against-time urgency of the last twenty minutes. Takuya’s determination is easily understood, as is Hiroki’s initial reluctance to become involved in the plane and their original plan. And through it all there’s Saruyi’s consciousness, putting together the clues from her childhood, and from her time with her two friends, in order to work out the mystery of the Tower. Shinkai juggles the expanding storylines of the movie’s second half with ease, while darkening the tone and still managing to retain some of the lyricism of the first half.

The plot and storylines are served greatly by some stunning animation, with the rural location where Hiroki and Takuya build their plane offering vistas of dazzling beauty. Shinkai – again – leads the movie’s animators in creating a world that is similar and different to ours at the same time, and includes all manner of small touches that illustrate the differences (check out the advertisement for “Popsi”). The blue skies and green fields, even the greys of the town, are all shot – again by Shinkai – with a view to making it all look richly alluring, a feast for the eyes that provides ravishing image after ravishing image. Even when the tone darkens, the movie is still striking to watch and rewards the eye continuously.

On the minus side, Saruyi’s eyes have that enlarged look favoured by animators the world over, the urgency in rescuing her from the hospital is forced on the plot without any build-up, and some of the political manoeuvring of the second half is glossed over or given just a passing nod – everyone talks about the war being inevitable and no one tries to stop it. And the finale strays too close to being confusing to provide the emotional dividends that the viewer has every right to expect.

Rating: 8/10 – breathtaking and beautiful to watch for most of its running time, The Place Promised in Our Early Days is a minor masterpiece from Makoto Shinkai and shows that Japanese anime has more to offer than talking animals and creatures from Japanese folklore; a more emotional tale than usual but this is easily the movie’s strength, and it’s backed up (not overwhelmed) by some superb animation.

Riders of Pylos (2011)

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Riders of Pylos

D: Nikos Kalogeropoulos / 92m

Cast: Nikos Kalogeropoulos, Ioulia Kalogridi, Ilias Logothetis, Giorgos Kimoulis, Antonis Kafetzopoulos, Antonis Theodorakopoulos, Takis Spiridakis, Vanna Barba, Dimitris Kaberidis, Vasilis Tsimbidis, Maria Kalagbor

Aging and once distinguished actor Telemachus (Kalogeropoulos) owes so much money to his creditors that he has to flee the theatre he’s playing at early one morning, taking as many of his props and costumes as he can in the back of a truck. He’s also had a recent health scare, brought on by too much smoking and drinking. He arrives in historic Messinia and the rundown castle of Polypylon, site of a horse sanctuary, where he’s greeted by Euhemerus (Kaberidis) and his brother Myron (Logothetis).

Telemachus spends an uneasy first night at the castle, and the next morning is reacquainted with an old actor friend, Voikalis (Kimoulis). But Voikalis is suffering from Alzheimer’s and doesn’t recognise him; he’s there to perform for the two horses he has at the sanctuary. Telemachus later decides to go for a ride in the surrounding countryside. He meets a woman named Haido (Barba) who invites him to have lunch with her, but he carries on with his journey, telling her he’ll come back later. He also meets an old man (also Kalogeropoulos) carrying a large wooden cross and pretending to be Jesus. They talk for a while before the old man moves on. Later, Telemachus’ horse runs away from him, leaving him stranded. He goes in search of it, but while the horse finds its way to Ephemeris’ estranged daughter, Democracy (Kalogridi), Telemachus finds himself getting even more lost than he was to begin with.

Haido waits for him to return but Telemachus eventually finds his way to where Democracy and his horse are waiting with a team of ecologists called the Riders of Pylos. Riding the horse again, he returns to Haido where she provides food and wine for him, and eventually, despite his attempts to resist her, they have sex. The next morning he returns to Polypylon, where he gives Myron and Euhemerus invitations to a celebration being organised by the Riders of Pylos, and where Telemachus and Democracy meet again and discover a mutual attraction.

Riders of Pylos - scene

A light and frothy concoction by the multi-talented Kalogeropolous, Riders of Pylos is sufficiently entertaining to avoid any notions of whimsicality or waspishness, and comes with such a sense of freedom that it makes the viewer wish for the kind of (seemingly) rootless existence that Telemachus experiences once he’s fled from his creditors. His is a blundering presence, presumptuous at times, dramatic at others, but always with a flair that, financial pressures aside, never seems to desert him. He’s like a mini-cyclone, unaware of the damage or chaos he’s creating, a force of nature surrounded by a greater force of nature that he seems oblivious to.

That he beguiles and bewitches two of the women he encounters could be said to be very fortunate indeed, but Telemachus is, despite his odd features and wrinkled appearance, an attractive, sensitive man, a man who views romance as an essential part of living. His brief connection with Haido shows his sense of pride slowly being eroded by her determination to bed him, until he reaches a point where, for him, it all becomes irrelevant and he might as well go through with it. He’s a man after all, with a man’s sense of personal, unavoidable destiny, and Haido is left overwhelmed by the experience; once committed, Telemachus is unable to give a terrible “performance”.

As the wandering actor, Kalogeropoulos is a delight to watch, his clumsy physicality and brash demeanour in the role developed over the course of the movie with an almost effortless disregard for the character’s pretensions and woes. It’s a performance where the actor goes out of his way to make his character a little too self-absorbed and out of his depth to be anything other than entirely sympathetic. Telemachus is a terrific creation, and Kalogeropoulos broadens his portrayal with occasional moments where Telemachus has moments of self-reflection that prove liberating for him. With his distinguished career on hold for the foreseeable future, Telemachus’ growing enthusiasm for this “new world” around him is delightful and charming.

It’s a good thing too, as the storyline is overall, a slight one, and with very little depth to it other than what’s created through the use of philosophical and historical quotes, some of which are daubed onto the walls of Polypylon itself. These are enough to make the characters seem more learned and intelligent than they actually are, but they lack the cleverness needed to elevate the characters’ posturing. Also, there are too many scenes, particularly involving Myron, that fail to advance what little story there is, and hold the movie back from fulfilling its potential. Telemachus’ journey of self-discovery is the main focus but getting lost and being forcefully cajoled into having sex aren’t exactly life changing experiences, and Kalogeropoulos’ script never quite knows what to do next with the character.

What the movie does know what to do with is its location at Polypylon, a wonderfully rundown castle in the hills that is a character all by itself, and which provides a splendid backdrop for several scenes in the movie. Either shown at a distance to show its full size, or lit up at night, Polypylon is a fantastic setting for Kalogeropoulos’s tale, a theatrical “venue” used to good effect throughout, and brimming with colour. So too is the surrounding countryside with its hills and waterfalls and boulders and pools, shot with precision and fidelity by DoP Yannis Drakoularakos. There are moments of breathtaking beauty to be had in Riders of Pylos, and each one is to be savoured.

Writer/director/star/composer Kalogeropoulos has fashioned an appealing, seductive tale that should bewitch audiences everywhere. Earthy, occasionally profane, and entrancing, the movie is a testament to its creator’s abilities and his knowledge of Greek values through the ages. A small, but hugely enjoyable blend of rural drama and contemporary romantic mores, this is well worth seeking out and capable of delivering the kind of warm feeling few movies even aspire to. Rating: 8/10 – refreshing for being entirely carefree with its portrayal of romantic ideals, Riders of Pylos is light and jovial, and all the better for it; with a sterling central performance, it’s a movie that wants its audience to have as good a time as possible, and on that level, it succeeds admirably.

NOTE: The following trailer doesn’t have any English subtitles but is still worth a look:

Borgman (2013)

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Borgman

D: Alex van Warmerdam / 108m

Cast: Jan Bijvoet, Hadewych Minis, Jeroen Perceval, Sara Hjort Ditlevsen, Tom Dewispelaere, Alex van Warmerdam, Eva van de Wijdeven, Annet Malherbe, Elve Lijbaart, Dirkje van der Pijl, Pieter-Bas de Waard, Mike Weerts

In a forest, three men (including a priest) hunt for a man (Bijvoet) who lives in an underground hideout. The man escapes and alerts two others, Pascal (Dewispalaere), and Ludwig (van Warmerdam), to the presence of the three men. The man heads into a nearby town where he tries to find somewhere to have a bath and clean up. At the home of the van Schendel’s he’s rebuffed by the husband, Richard (Perceval), until he says that he knows his wife, Marina (Minis). Although she denies this, Richard becomes angry and attacks the man, knocking him to the ground. Later, after Richard has gone to work, Marina finds the man, who is called Camiel Borgman, hiding in their summer house. She lets him have a bath and some food and he persuades her to let him stay in the summer house for a few days, though Marina makes it clear he has to avoid being seen.

However, Borgman is soon finding reasons to be in the house, and is seen by her three children and their nanny, Stine (Ditlevsen). As problems in their marriage become apparent, Marina begins to lean towards Borgman for support and he stays for longer than planned. Borgman asks if their gardener is a friend or someone they’re close to; Marina says no. The next day, the gardener is shot with a poisoned dart by Borgman who takes him to his home and where he arranges for two of his associates, Olinka (van de Wijdeven) and Brenda (Malherbe) to meet him. The three of them kill the gardener and his wife and later dispose of the bodies.

Marina and Richard’s relationship continues to deteriorate, and when Borgman applies for the job of replacement gardener, Richard doesn’t recognise him, and he’s hired straight away. His friends Pascal and Ludwig arrive to help with the work needed to be done. Suffering from nightmares in which Richard is violent towards her, Marina grows ever more distant toward him and closer – at least on her part – to Borgman. With the children and Stine beginning to act strangely, and Marina becoming more and more desperate to be with Borgman, she asks him if there is something he can do about Richard. He can, and events converge on the night of a dinner party that includes Marina’s family, Borgman and his two friends, and Stine and her boyfriend, Arthur (Weerts).

Borgman - scene

The first Dutch movie in thirty-eight years to be selected for the Cannes Film Festival, Borgman is a dark, psychological thriller that comes replete with supernatural overtones. It’s a strange movie, uneven in places, disconcerting in others, and too much of its narrative feels arbitrary, or is left unexplained, for it to work fully. The mystery of Camiel Borgman and his associates is never completely revealed (though there are clues sprinkled throughout the movie), and the relationship between Marina and Richard lacks sufficient exploration to be completely convincing. And yet the movie is deceptively fascinating despite all this, taking hold from the start and keeping the viewer’s attention until the very (disappointing) end.

What stops the movie from being as rewarding or effective as it could be is the curious motivations behind Borgman’s activities and those of his associates. With writer/director van Warmerdam appearing unsure of which side of the coin he wants to come down on – are they angels or demons? – the resulting uncertainty is reflected in the tone and the imagery of the movie. There’s a repeated visual reference to Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare, where an incubus sits atop a sleeping woman (several times Borgman is seen astride Marina while she sleeps), but there’s also a scar on Borgman’s back that may represent the absence of wings. This causes a fair degree of confusion about the character’s motives and his reasons for choosing the van Schenkels as his targets (at first it seems as if they’ve been chosen at random but as the movie continues it seems more appropriate to think of them as having been picked out deliberately). It also leads to an unsatisfactory conclusion that is as puzzling as it is abrupt.

With the movie proving inconsistent – even though it’s absorbing at the same time – it’s left to the cast to help maintain any semblance of continuity. Bijvoet is mesmerising as the title character, his remote gaze and dispassionate regard for the people around him so exactingly portrayed it makes his performance completely unnerving; you just never know what he’s thinking. There’s a degree of urbanity about him that’s contrasted by his manipulative behaviour, but Bijvoet handles the various differences in the character of Borgman with ease. As the troubled, frustrated Marina, Minis is equally as good, and equally as mesmerising as Bijvoet, and she helps ground the more elaborate, metaphysical aspects of the script. Alas, Perceval isn’t given enough leeway to make Richard anything more than a bully and a probable victim of Borgman’s scheme to see the pair fall into his trap. With the remaining characters used to widen the narrative, but often to very little effect, the movie remains essentially a two-hander.

But again, Borgman is consistently absorbing and intriguing, and van Warmerdam works hard to stop the movie from becoming too abstruse, creating a tone that combines mystery, very dark humour, and psychological suspense to impressive effect. He’s aided by Tom Erisman’s clinical photography and Job ter Burg’s ascetic editing style, each adding to the somewhat distant effect used by van Warmerdam to highlight the dysfunction of the characters and their actions. There’s also some clever lighting effects used when necessary, and the score by Vincent van Warmerdam is cleverly suited and adapted to the material’s even pace and disturbing moments.

Rating: 6/10 – with the resolution of its central mystery proving so unsatisfying, Borgman wastes a lot of time setting things up only to forget to follow through; Bijvoet and Minis make for superb protagonists but can’t prop up van Warmerdam’s unwieldy script enough to save it completely.

Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 (2015)

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Paul Blart Mall Cop 2

D: Andy Fickman / 94m

Cast: Kevin James, Raini Rodriguez, Neal McDonough, Eduardo Verástegui, Daniella Alonso, David Henrie, D.B. Woodside, Nicholas Turturro, Gary Valentine, Ana Gasteyer, Loni Love, Shelley Desai, Shirley Knight

INTERIOR. DAY. THE OFFICE OF MICHAEL LYNTON, CHAIRMAN & CEO OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT. THE OFFICE DOOR OPENS. HIS SECRETARY COMES IN.

LYNTON: Yes?

SECRETARY: You’ve just had a call from Kevin James.

LYNTON: Okay. What was it about?

SECRETARY: He said he had a great idea for Paul Blart: Mall Cop 3.

LYNTON: Have you seen Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2?

SECRETARY: No, I haven’t.

LYNTON: Well, pray you never have to. And after we pass on number three, pray no other studio picks it up instead.

SECRETARY: Is 2 that bad?

LYNTON: Bad? It makes Zookeeper look like it should have won Best Film at the Oscars.

SECRETARY: Okay, that is bad. What shall I say if he calls back?

LYNTON: (thinks for a moment) Tell him I’ve died – No, that won’t stop him. No, tell him we’re only making horror movies from now on. And pray he doesn’t come up with an idea for one of those instead.

SECRETARY: Got it. Will do.

LYNTON: Hell, I wish he would.

THE SECRETARY LEAVES. LYNTON GETS UP FROM HIS DESK AND WALKS TO THE WINDOW. HE LOOKS OUT AND SHAKES HIS HEAD REPEATEDLY IN A WEARY, RESIGNED MANNER.

FADE OUT.

Paul Blart Mall Cop 2 - scene

Rating: 3/10 – so bad you wish you could forget it the moment you see it, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 is an appalling, unfunny mess that mistakes pratfalls for the height of humour, and makes continually desperate attempts to inject real mirth into proceedings; an early front runner for Worst Sequel of 2015.

Unit 7 (2012)

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Grupo 7

Original title: Grupo 7

D: Alberto Rodríguez / 95m

Cast: Antonio de la Torre, Mario Casas, Joaquín Núñez, José Manuel Poga, Inma Cuesta, Lucía Guerrero, Estefanía de los Santos, Alfonso Sánchez, Julián Villagrán, Carlos Olalla

Seville, 1987. With five years to go before the city plays host to the 1992 World Expo, the authorities are determined to root out any and all crime in the city, and particularly the drugs trade. Spearheading this attempt is Unit 7, made up of four officers: tough, uncompromising Rafael (de la Torre), young, ambitious Ángel (Casas), jovial, emotional Mateo (Núñez), and vain, homophobic Miguel (Poga). Using informants such as Joaquín (Villagrán) the team begins dismantling the various dealers and suppliers that threaten the Expo’s success. But their initial busts don’t amount to very much. It’s only when they find a substantial amount of heroin at the apartment of a prostitute known as Mahogany (de los Santos), Ángel takes some of it, and the team agrees to use it to create more informants, and thereby catch more dealers and suppliers.

Over the next four years their plan comes to fruition, and to such an extent that the team are responsible for fifty per cent of all arrests made by the Seville police. But tensions arise within the group as Rafael, nominally the group’s leader, is challenged more and more by an increasingly erratic and unpredictable Ángel. Ángel becomes more and more intolerant of the drug dealers and the junkies, and often violently assaults them in the way that Rafael used to. But where Ángel becomes more inured to the violence, and emotionally closed off – and which affects his marriage to Elena (Cuesta) – Rafael becomes more relaxed and indifferent, due to his relationship with a young junkie, Lucía (Guerrero).

The team’s high arrest rate also begins to attract the attention of Internal Affairs, and the team find themselves being followed. With an increasing media spotlight on them as well, a misguided raid on a home in the suburbs causes them to lose some of their credibility (and sense of invincibility). And when Ángel becomes the target of someone who knows why the team are so successful, and is prepared to use terror tactics to undermine them, their efficiency continues to falter. When they’re ambushed and humiliated in a similar fashion that they used to intimidate some junkies once before, and the identity of their tormentor is revealed, it leads to Ángel and Rafael going back to deal with their tormentor once and for all.

Grupo 7 - scene

Incorporating contemporary footage of the World Expo site being developed and built over the years between 1987 and 1992, Unit 7 provides a social, political and historical perspective to its story that adds some degree of depth to the material, and while this is to be applauded, the episodic nature of the story ultimately works against it, leaving the viewer wanting to know more about the characters and their motivations, and with the feeling that there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than we ever get to see or know about.

The trickiest (and not entirely convincing) aspect of all is the character of Ángel, set up as the rookie of the group and suitably naïve when the movie begins. An unfortunate encounter with a drug dealer leaves his lack of experience exposed, and his attempts to gain promotion are hampered by his diabetes – a plot device which is used in such a haphazard manner it might as well not be mentioned. But from the moment he picks up the pack of heroin and hides it he becomes a different man: arrogant for the most part and acting more like a vigilante than a cop. It’s a swift, unexpected change in direction, and while it helps set up the rest of the movie, appears too much out of the blue for comfort.

In contrast, Rafael’s turn to the “softer” side is given more room to develop, and while his relationship with Lucía provides more of an emotional component for the movie than it has anywhere else, the whole thing ultimately doesn’t go anywhere and leaves Rafael just as embittered and alone as he was at the beginning. With Mateo equalling comedy relief and Miguel placed firmly in the background, screenwriter Rafael Cobos’ more random approach to characterisation has the effect of distancing the viewer from the team, even though strong efforts are made to show their camaraderie and their combined sense of purpose. Certainly the cast, all well chosen for their roles, put in strong, confident portrayals – with de la Torre and de los Santos proving especially convincing – and make more of their roles than the script allows for.

Thankfully, Cobos’ script does work extremely well in its attempts to portray the effort made to break up various drugs rings and the kind of intimidation and violence that goes with it. The team regularly use excessive force, and while it’s probably not a misrepresentation of the times or the police attitude towards criminals, the savagery of their actions is remarkably one-sided – even when their tormentor reveals himself he doesn’t treat them as harshly as he was by them. This difference again has the effect of distancing the viewer from the group, and their subsequent actions, plus their ultimate fate come 1992, lacks the resonance it should have had.

That said, the action scenes are well-mounted, and Rodríguez shows a flair for unusual camera angles that makes – in particular – the opening rooftop chase such a visceral and propulsive experience to watch. With so many movies like this being made across the world (and too many in the US), Rodríguez’ visual acuity helps lift the movie above many of its competitors, and while this is his first attempt at making a película policial, bodes well enough if he should decide to make another. Aided by regular collaborators DoP Alex Catalán and composer Julio de la Rosa, Rodríguez has fashioned a hard-hitting, if emotionally distant crime drama that, fortunately, scores more often than it misses.

Rating: 7/10 – though struggling to offer a connection for the viewer on an emotional level, Unit 7 does provide a solid, impactful ride for most of its running time; with a firm sense of place and time, and an often impressive look and feel to it, this movie is still worth tracking down.

Mini-Review: Get Hard (2015)

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Get Hard

D: Etan Cohen / 100m

Cast: Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart, Craig T. Nelson, Alison Brie, T.I. “Tip” Harris, Edwina Findlay, Ariana Neal, Paul Ben-Victor, John Mayer, Greg Germann, Ron Funchkes

Hedge fund manager James King (Ferrell) has it all: a beautiful home, a beautiful fiancee (Brie), a recent promotion to partner in his future father-in-law Martin’s firm, and all the money he needs for a dream lifestyle. But it all comes crashing down when he’s arrested for embezzlement. In court, the judge sentences him to ten years in San Quentin, but allows him thirty days to get his affairs in order. In the wake of this, Alissa dumps him, Martin vows to find the person really responsible for the embezzlement, and James faces the prospect of prison by trying to run away to Mexico. But when he bumps into Darnell Lewis, who runs the car wash business at his place of work, he makes the assumption that Darnell has been in prison because he’s black. Asking for Darnell’s help in surviving on the inside, Darnell agrees to help him for $30,000.

Darnell does his best to toughen up James and prepare him for prison life, but James proves a less than able pupil. In the end Darnell decides James needs to be protected on the inside and hooks him up with his cousin, Russell (Harris), who has his own gang, the Crenshaw Kings. James makes a good impression on Russell but Russell decides he needs protection from a white gang instead and sends him to see the Allegiance of Whites gang, but the meeting ends in disaster, and both he and Darnell barely escape with their lives. At this point, Darnell realises that James really is innocent, and together they look for the real crook. But finding and keeping the evidence to convict that person proves to be another matter entirely.

Get Hard - scene

Whatever your feeling about mismatched buddy comedies, or indeed any movie starring Will Ferrell or Kevin Hart, chances are that this will appeal to a broad audience base, and entertain accordingly. If the movie lapses too often into the kind of farcical schtick that seems to underpin this particular comedy sub-genre, then it shouldn’t be a surprise that it lacks even the requisite number of belly laughs. This isn’t to say that Get Hard isn’t funny – it definitely has its moments – but what holds it back is that it doesn’t try hard enough to make its intended audience really laugh out loud (though a couple of one-liners come close). What it does is present situation after situation that allows Ferrell to trot out his idiot man-child persona one more time, and with little or no variation from any other comedy he’s made in the last ten years. James is a role tailor-made for him, but the problem is that it doesn’t stretch Ferrell as an actor, and for large stretches he coasts along in the role, hitting his mark but without any appreciable effort.

It’s the same for Hart, giving us the same manic portrayal he’s given us in Ride Along (2014), The Wedding Ringer (2015) and others. With nothing to shake up the performance, it looks tired already. Add to that an increasingly bizarre series of situations where James has to “man up” – including giving a blow job to a stranger, easily the movie’s most uncomfortably plotted moment – and a criminal plot that has all the originality of of a photocopy, Get Hard is lazy, opportunistic and, at times, unbelievably crass.

Rating: 4/10 – not the absolute worst way to spend ninety-four minutes of your time, but certainly not the best either, Get Hard wastes the talents of its two stars, and plays it all by numbers; save your money and wait for it to become available for free in whichever way you can access it.

The Human Resources Manager (2010)

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Human Resources Manager, The

D: Eran Riklis / 99m

Cast: Mark Ivanir, Guri Alfi, Noah Silver, Rosina Kambus, Julian Negulesco, Bogdan E. Stanoevitch, Irina Petrescu, Gila Almagor, Reymonde Amsallem, Roni Karen, Papil Panduru

When an employee at a prestigious bakery in Jerusalem is killed, and her body goes unclaimed for some weeks, it leads to a public relations crisis for the company. With a newspaper article being prepared that will criticise the bakery, its owner, known as the Widow (Almagor), gives the job of defusing the matter to the human resources manager (Ivanir). He discovers that the employee was a Romanian immigrant called Yulia who had been living in Jerusalem for some time, but whose family is back in her home country. He also learns that she had been let go a month before by her supervisor, and believes that this absolves the bakery of any blame for her body going unclaimed.

However, the journalist writing the article, known as the Weasel (Alfi), publishes the article anyway. And instead of fighting any claim of negligence, the Widow decides to admit blame and pay compensation to the family; she also gives the job of escorting the body back to Romania and representing the company at the funeral to the HR manager. With his home life proving difficult to negotiate – he’s divorced and has a young daughter (Karen) he doesn’t spend enough time with – the prospect of being away for a few days isn’t ideal, but he doesn’t have a choice.

At the Widow’s request, the Weasel goes with him, which adds to his problems. And once he gets to Romania, the HR manager finds that bureaucracy and local customs place further obstacles in the way of arranging the funeral. First, Yulia’s ex-husband (Stanoevitch) can’t sign the burial form because he’s no longer family. A search for their son (Silver) reveals a wild child at odds with everyone, but who is too young to sign the form either. This leaves his grandmother (Petrescu), but she lives in a remote village that is a couple of days’ journey away. Borrowing the van used by the Israeli consul (Kambus), the HR Manager, accompanied by the Weasel, the Vice Consul (Negulesco), the son, and a driver (Panduru), make their way to the grandmother’s village. But the onset of a storm forces them to take shelter in a military barracks, where both the van breaks down, and the HR manager becomes ill…

Human Resources Manager, The - scene

A downbeat, yet curiously, almost accidentally uplifting adaptation of A.B. Yehoshua’s novel A Woman in Jerusalem, The Human Resources Manager is a strange beast, part black comedy, part tortuous road trip, and part voyage of discovery. These elements, fused together as they are here, work in ways that often come as a surprise, and it makes for rewarding viewing, as the HR manager finds a new lease of life from taking care of the dead.

As the HR manager learns to loosen up and out his own troubles behind him – a previous posting that went horribly wrong, his divorce, the Widow’s lack of confidence in him – he also learns how to deal with the problems of others, particularly the son, whom he eventually bonds with. It’s all done gradually and with a great deal of sympathy and warmth toward the character of the HR manager, and avoids any grand emotional gestures, preferring to keep things on an even level and without a great deal of show. This approach doesn’t undermine the characters’ experiences on their travels, but serves to keep matters realistic, and is remarkably naturalistic as well.

The movie has its quirks. No one is called by name, only by description: the son, the Vice Consul, the grandmother etc., and it makes for an everyman feel. The only person who has a name is the dead woman, Yulia. And while this may point to some notion of the movie playing with stereotypes, such is not the case. Yes, it makes for a kind of shorthand when characters are introduced, but the absence of names never becomes an issue. The same is true of Romania, obviously the country the HR manager travels to, but never named in the movie. It adds to the idea that this is a story that could happen to anyone, anywhere.

In the title role, Ivanir is a great choice, his stoic features and resigned looks fitting the character perfectly. His early frustration at being given such a job is played with just the right degree of self-absorption and rancour. As the movie develops and the HR manager becomes more involved with Yulia’s family, Ivanir portrays his new-found determination and purpose with credibility and a refreshing lack of artifice. By letting go of his life back in Israel, or at least the things he believes are important to him, and by learning that he tries to exercise too much control, he frees himself from the yoke he’s placed around his own neck. It’s an impressive, consistent performance that anchors the movie and gives the viewer someone to connect with (and root for).

The supporting characters are all fleshed out to good effect, with Silver as the angry, petulant, aggressive son, and Kambus as the waspish Consul standing out from the crowd. There’s often stunning location photography courtesy of DoP Rainer Klausmann, and the movie is edited with precision by Tova Asher. In the director’s chair, Riklis organises and orchestrates the script by Noah Stollman in such a way that each scene adds something more to the story, and enriches it as a whole. He’s also good at bringing out the less obvious emotions in a scene and rendering them accordingly, letting the story unfold in a way that keeps the viewer guessing what’s going to happen next. It all adds up to a movie that is as poignant as it is efficiently dramatic.

Rating: 8/10 – with a terrific central performance by Ivanir, The Human Resources Manager takes its time and tells its story with honesty and subdued passion; not as morbid as it may seem, this carries a warmth and a heart that makes it a lot more enjoyable than you’d imagine.

Virginity (1937)

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Virginity

Original title: Panenství

D: Otakar Vávra / 82m

Cast: Lída Baarová, Ladislav Bohác, Zdenek Stepánek, Jaroslav Prucha, Adina Mandlová, Bozena Sustrová, Bedřich Veverka, Jaroslava Skorkovská, Frantisek Kreuzmann

Hana (Baarová) lives with her parents (Skorkovská, Kreuzmann) and helps out in their grocery store. Her mother is hard-working while her father is a drunkard. One day, he tries to kiss Hana; her mother walks in on them and sees what’s happening, but instead of berating her husband, she tells Hana to get out. Luckily, Hana finds work at a café run by Josef Nevostrý (Stepánek). He’s attracted to her and finds ways to promote her; this causes some animosity amongst the other female staff but otherwise she gets on well with everybody. One day she meets a regular customer called Paul (Bohác), a composer; there’s an instant attraction between the two of them.

Soon, Hana comes to the attention of another regular customer, the Counsel (Prucha). An old man, he entices her with gifts, first a ring, which Hana accepts, and then a bracelet. But her relationship with Paul has grown stronger, and Hana refuses the Counsel’s offer of the bracelet. Undeterred, he tells Hana she can collect it from his apartment at any time. Meanwhile, Paul, who is sick, is determined to finish his latest classical work, but the effort takes too much of a toll. He becomes too ill, and is advised that he should spend time recuperating in the mountains. However, the cost of such a trip is expensive, and not even his doctor (Veverka) can afford to lend him the money to go.

Fearing that Paul will get worse, or even die, Hana goes to the Counsel’s apartment, but she can’t go through with her plan to allow the old man to seduce her and then get the money she needs for Paul. There is a scuffle and the old man suffers a stroke. Hana flees the building. Later, Paul comes to the café and tells Hana that his doctor has lent him the money to go to the mountains. Knowing this to be untrue, Hana makes a fateful decision: to marry Nevostrý and use the dowry to pay for Paul’s trip…

Virginity - scene

Adapted from the novel by Czech writer Marie Majerová (and with a screenplay co-written by her, Frantisek Cáp, A.J. Urban and the director), Virginity is a sombre yet engrossing tale of one woman’s refusal to be used, or taken advantage of, by the predatory men that surround her. Thanks to a great performance by Baarová, and sympathetic direction by Vávra, the movie avoids any sense that it’s an early soap opera by making each of the characters more fully rounded than usual, and by doing its best not to appear predictable – which it is for the most part (though not when it matters).

By making Hana a young woman whose awareness of the world, and what goes on in it, makes her less naïve than usual also makes for an interesting central character who seems to side-step problems with ease, but who doesn’t quite have the complete confidence that should come with that ability. Some things, like her successive promotions at the café, orchestrated by her quietly lovesick boss, she takes quick and decisive advantage of while remaining oblivious to his attentions. Even though her female colleagues are less than enamoured of her rise through the ranks, Hana’s mix of sincerity and good intentions stops her from being disliked, and there’s a strong sense of the female solidarity that keeps all the women from being exploited, either at work or in their love lives. With the female characters refusing to be objectified, or to let the men around them feel they can be bought with trinkets, the movie has a proto-feminist feel that few movies of the Thirties – wherever they were made – can boast.

Issues of feminism aside, it’s the seedy backdrop that draws the attention. The Counsel is an old-style lecher, leering and manipulative, his intentions as clear as if he’d written them on the café window. Prucha plays him as a sly old fox, certain of his “charm” and even more certain that his gifts will bring him what he wants. Despite his soft-spoken manner and patrician bearing, he’s the worst type of predator: the one who knows his ploy will work… in time. In contrast, Nevostrý is motivated by passion and love, but his own attentions toward Hana are equally as disturbing as the Counsel’s. His approach is to reward her and make her grateful to him, to make her feel obliged when he finally reveals his feelings for her (though his scheme is undermined by Hana’s need for the dowry). It’s a clever conceit, that the man who professes love for Hana is the most conniving in pursuing her.

As her true love, however, Bohác’s agonised composer is a less than desirable mate, his wild stares and manic grinning proving too distracting from the moment he appears. (In truth his portrayal is reminiscent of any Twenties performance by Conrad Veldt, and distractingly so.) It’s to Baarovás credit that she makes Hana’s love for Paul so convincing, her early infatuation played with such sweet earnestness that the viewer is swept along by the budding romance in the same way the character is. As Paul’s condition worsens, Baarová shows Hana’s fear and apprehension with such a degree of sympathy that when she makes the journey to the Counsel’s apartment and begins to have second thoughts as she climbs the stairs, it’s the most dramatic moment in the movie. And when she is preparing to be married to Nevostrý, with her workmates fussing around her, the look on her face tells you all you need to know about how Hana is feeling at that moment. It’s an impressive performance, and all the more so for the risqué – for 1937 – scene where Hana expresses her frustration at being parted from Paul: she stands in front of a mirror in her room and runs her hands down over her breasts, her arousal so plainly written in her features that it’s almost embarrassing to watch. (Interesting Historical Footnote: when she made this movie Baarová was living in Berlin, and was the mistress of Josef Goebbels. Yes, that Josef Goebbels.)

Director Vávra does a fine job of keeping things from becoming too sensational, or mawkish, and handles the social and sexual politics of the time and the story with understated finesse. He draws out fine performances from his cast – Bohác aside – and gets to the heart of a scene with a minimum of fuss or any attempt to draw attention to himself as the director. As a result, the movie has a fresh, unhurried feel to it that makes it entirely believable from start to finish.

Rating: 8/10 – a minor classic from Czechoslovakia that boasts a handful of terrific performances and clever direction, Virginity never lets it characters – or the audience – down; Baarová is a pleasure to watch, so good in the role of Hana that this is one of those occasions where it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

NOTE: No trailer available.

Odd Couple (1979)

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Odd Couple

Original title: Bo ming chan dao duo ming qiang

aka Eternal Conflict

D: Chia Lung Yiu / 91m

Cast: Sammo Hung, Ka-Yan Leung, Chia Yung Liu, Dean Shek, Hoi Sang Lee, Huang Ha, Peter Chan, Karl Maka, Lam Ching-Ying, Mars, San Tai

The King of Sabres (Hung) and the King of Spears (Liu) are fierce rivals whose fighting skills are tested in each year in a duel. But the contests are always a draw, and after fifteen years they hit upon the idea of each training an apprentice who will represent them in another duel and hopefully, decide the issue. With the idea agreed, the King of Sabres discovers his apprentice at a local market, where the young man, Stubborn Wing (Liu) is defending himself against a gangster (Lee) and two of his henchmen. With the King of Sabres’ aid, the trio are defeated, but Stubborn Wing resists the King of Sabres’ entreaties to become his apprentice. It’s only when his home is burned down and the King of Sabres offers to train Stubborn Wing with a view to letting him try to kill him when he’s ready, that the young man agrees to go with him.

In turn, the King of Spears finds his apprentice in the form of a boatman called Ah Yo (Hung). In contrast to Stubborn Wing, Ah Yo is more than eager to join the King of Spears, and joins him willingly. Over time they both learn from their respective masters, until the day comes for them to travel to the Wulin Sacred Place, where their respective masters have their duels. On the way, Ah Yo encounters a lord called Master Rocking (Shek) and his retinue at an inn. A fight ensues and Master Rocking and his men are defeated by Ah So; but when Stubborn Wing arrives at the same inn, Master Rocking returns with two mercenaries to challenge Ah Yo. Instead, the two apprentices take them on individually, beating them and teaching Master Rocking one final lesson.

At Wulin Sacred Place the pair begin their duel but are interrupted by the arrival of Laughing Bandit (Leung). Laughing Bandit, who bears a scar on his face and the back of one hand from duels he fought with both Kings years before, captures Stubborn Wing and Ah Yo. Knowing that their masters will try to rescue them, Laughing Bandit waits for them to arrive at his hideout, and to take revenge for the loss of face they’ve both caused him.

Odd Couple - scene

With dozens upon dozens upon dozens more martial arts movies made in Hong Kong during the Seventies, sorting the wheat from the chaff could be seen as either nigh on impossible, or the kind of project you’d need years to devote to. But what can be said about Odd Couple, is that it’s one of the best, a mix of silly comedy, stunning martial arts choreography, and a story that makes a virtue of its own simplicity.

It’s a movie that is almost incredibly silly at times, and yet it works, from the ridiculous mannerisms of Shek as Master Rocking, to the knowing facial expressions of its two Kings, to the scared remarks of two challengers to the King of Sabres’ title – “I’ll go and get my brother.” “I’ll go and tell my granny.” This is a movie that is easy to laugh along with and doesn’t descend fully into the kind of inexplicable playground humour that a lot of Hong Kong movies include (it may be funny to the people of Hong Kong but sometimes local humour doesn’t travel that well). There’s humour too in the relationships, where grudging respect is hidden beneath a barrage of insults and putdowns. There’s even a joke at the villain’s expense: when he and the two Kings come face to face it’s revealed that he used to be called Old Yellow Dog.

The story, despite some problems with its own timeline, keeps things moving from one glorious set-piece to another, and even lets some of the supporting characters share in the spotlight. A highlight is Mars’ performance as Potato, the King of Spears’ assistant. With a queue that features several short tufts of hair dotted above the forehead, and the kind of protruding upper middle teeth that Bugs Bunny would be proud of, Potato is a walking, talking “joke” all on his own. But it’s Hung and Liu who dominate, playing dual roles and yet creating four distinct and believable characters (and it’s a pleasant surprise that the movie doesn’t attempt to place them all in the same frame – or that it matters). Hung looks so youthful in this movie it serves as a reminder that he’s been making movies for such a long time (and to such a high standard). He has such a screen presence that he commands the screen in either role, and brings his usual high spirits to the material. But Liu matches him, playing his two roles with a more serious flair and frowning a lot, but clearly enjoying himself, both as an actor and as the director.

In the end, though, it’s action directors Yuen Biao, Lam Ching-Ying and Billy Chan who make the movie as entertaining and as breathtaking as it is. The martial arts choreography in Odd Couple is nothing short of astounding, with all concerned raising the bar with each action sequence. It’s incredible to see Hung and Liu – and Leung as well at the end – move with such speed and agility (though there is a moment where the action is speeded up deliberately, a nod perhaps to the sheer brio employed), and all without apparent benefit of wires or too much trickery in the editing suite. Every clash of sabre and spear or body blow is captured with loud, ringing clarity by the sound effects department, adding to the overall effect and making the action even more thrilling in its execution. Ming Ho’s cinematography supports it all with tremendous élan, perfectly framing each scene and showing a judicious use of close ups when required.

Rating: 8/10 – there’s a franchise that includes the words “fast” and “furious” in its title, but Odd Couple really is both those things, and very funny as well; with all the talent involved, it’s a movie that had every right to turn out as well as it did, and the overwhelming proof is there on the screen.

Wild Tales (2014)

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Wild Tales

Original title: Relatos salvajes

D: Damián Szifrón / 122m

Cast: Darío Grandinetti, María Marull, Rita Cortese, Julieta Zylberberg, César Bordón, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Walter Donado, Ricardo Darín, Nancy Dupláa, Oscar Martínez, Osmar Núñez, Germán de Silva, Érica Rivas, Diego Gentile

On a plane, catwalk model Isabel (Marull) meets classical music critic Salgado (Grandinetti). They discover they both know Gabriel Pasternak, Isabel’s ex-boyfriend. Soon, it becomes apparent that everyone on the flight knows Gabriel, and they’ve all held him back or made him angry in some way. But now Gabriel is flying the plane…

At a diner late one night, a man (Bordón) comes in and is rude to the waitress (Cortese). She recognises him as the man who caused her father’s death and made advances to her mother two weeks after her father’s funeral. The cook (Zylberberg), upon hearing this, suggests they put rat poison in his food. The waitress is horrified by the idea, but when the food goes out and she discovers the cook has added the poison, she makes little effort to stop the man from eating it. It’s only when the man’s son arrives and begins eating the food as well that she tries to take the food away, with terrible consequences…

Driving through the countryside, Diego (Sbaraglia) is deliberately held up by another driver, Mario (Donado). Diego finally overtakes him and yells abuse at him as he goes by. Several miles later, he gets a flat tyre just as he reaches a bridge. Just as he’s finishing putting a new wheel on, Mario arrives and pulls up directly in front of Diego’s car. Diego hides inside his car, while Mario takes the opportunity to vandalise it. When he’s finished, Mario gets back in his truck but before he can move off, an incensed Diego pushes Mario’s vehicle down the incline at the side of the bridge where it topples over into the river. Mario survives and clambers back up to the road, threatening to find Diego and kill him as Diego drives off. But Diego finds he can’t leave things as they are, and turns back…

Respected demolitions expert Simón (Darín) stops off on his way home to pick up a birthday cake for his daughter. While he does, his car is towed away for being in a No Parking zone. He goes to the towing depot and despite explaining that he couldn’t have known he was parked illegally, still has to pay to get his car released. He also finds that he has to pay the parking fine as well, but before he does he loses his temper and takes a fire extinguisher to the teller’s window. His subsequent arrest leads to his losing his job, which leads to his wife wanting a divorce, which – in a twist of fate – leads to his car being towed again. But this time, he makes the necessary payments, before embarking on a plan of revenge…

Well-off businessman Mauricio (Martínez) wakes one morning to learn that his teenage son has knocked down and killed a pregnant woman. He calls his lawyer (Núñez), who comes over straight away. They hit on a plan to persuade Mauricio’s groundskeeper Jose (de Silva) to take the blame for the hit-and-run in return for $500,000. When the fiscal prosecutor arrives he realises Jose isn’t the culprit, but proves willing to go along with Mauricio’s plan if he can be paid as well. When the cost of keeping things quiet begins to spiral out of control, Mauricio realises there’s only one thing he can do…

On the day of their wedding, Romina (Rivas) and Ariel (Gentile) are as happy as any newly-wed couple can be. Until Romina spies Ariel with a woman that he works with, and being more friendly than is comfortable. She confronts him and eventually he concedes that he’s slept with the other woman. Romina, angry and upset, runs off to the roof where she encounters one of the kitchen staff. He consoles her, which leads to Romina deciding to go back down and make this one wedding reception to remember…

Wild Tales - scene 3

With each of its six stories painting a picture of emphatic revenge, Wild Tales is a treasure trove of violence, pent-up emotion, unbridled anger, personal despair, and cathartic expression. It’s an often no-holds-barred experience where average people find themselves willing and able to do things they wouldn’t normally consider. As such it works on a visceral level that will have some viewers cheering in parts and laughing heartily in others; it’s that kind of feelgood movie.

The stories themselves vary in intensity, with several proving satisfactory on a wish fulfilment level, while a couple lack the bite of the rest. The opener has the initial feel of a Twilight Zone episode, but soon morphs into the ultimate revenge tale as one man decides to kill everyone who’s ever crossed him. It’s funny and horrifying at the same time and packs a punch with its final shot that isn’t forgotten very easily. The second tale has a classic structure, and is where revenge is complicated by the arrival of an innocent into the proceedings. It’s stylishly done, with a noir feel to it that complements and enhances the storyline, and Zylberberg’s fierce portrayal of the cook is an unexpected bonus.

The pick of the bunch is definitely the third tale, with its two protagonists descending rapidly from macho posturing to murderous determination with no attempt made to work things out. It’s brutal, uncompromising, and shocking in the way that these two men resort to such extreme measures – and with so little compunction. And then there’s the ironic postscript, where two investigators sum up their opinion of what happened, a perfect coda that subverts the savagery that’s gone before. By contrast, the fourth tale is a more considered tale of revenge, the kind that’s taken after one too many setbacks, reversals of fortune, or bad breaks. The issue of being towed away will be familiar to many people in many countries, and it’s this familiarity that gives the story it’s resonance. As Simón fights against an uncaring bureaucracy, you know it’s just a matter of time before he puts his “special set of skills” to good, vengeful use. And when he does, you can’t help but cheer, even though you know the system won’t let him get away with it.

The fifth tale is perhaps the weakest of the six, where the concept of revenge is used in its loosest form, with Mauricio taking a firm stand against the people who, seeing an opportunity, are looking to benefit from the awful situation his son has put him in. There’s a humorous side to the tale that manifests itself through the spiralling costs of people’s willingness to “help”, and finally by Mauricio’s assertion that enough is enough and all deals are off. But corruption has a way of winning out, and the outcome – while never in doubt – provides a sad, sour note that doesn’t feature elsewhere in the movie. The sixth tale is a riot, one of those stories that we’d like to think happens more often than it actually does, where fidelity is exposed and leads to the kind of publicly humiliating, extreme, morally indignant behaviour where verbal cruelty is the order of the day. It’s similar to the first tale in that it’s funny and horrifying at the same time, but on reflection, viewers may well find that it doesn’t go far enough, and that Romina’s actions aren’t quite as vindictive as they could have been. Still, it’s an entertaining tale, and in contrast to all the carnage and terrible behaviour seen in the previous stories, has a final scene that ends the movie on a positive note.

Wild Tales - scene 6

On the whole, Wild Tales is a darkly comic look at the various ways in which revenge can colour and alter our lives and lead us down some very dark paths indeed. As assembled by writer/director Szifrón, the movie is absorbing and compelling and bitingly satirical in its reflection of how quickly we dispense with so-called decent behaviour when we feel the need to. It’s difficult to detect any moral judgment in the stories, with Szifrón apparently content to let his audience make their own minds up as to how guilty or innocent each character is, but some will definitely have their supporters.

Each segment starts off slow then picks up speed, which does lead to the feeling that the movie is a bit of a stop-start experience, but the characters are concisely and effectively drawn, and Szifrón makes sure each tale is told in a lean, measured way that augments the material and ensures there’s nothing extraneous to deal with. The cast are uniformly excellent, with special mention going to Darín and Rivas. And each tale benefits from Javier Julia’s often invigorating and beautifully lit photography.

Rating: 8/10 – as portmanteau movies go, Wild Tales has such a high success rate it could be almost embarrassing; with its theme of revenge expressed in such an impressive fashion, the movie has so much to offer, and rewards on so many levels, that it can be returned to time and time again and still maintain its effectiveness.

Xala (1975)

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Xala

aka The Curse

D: Ousmane Sembene / 123m

Cast: Thierno Leye, Seune Samb, Younouss Seye, Myriam Niang, Fatim Diagne, Mustapha Ture, Iliamane Sagna, Dieynaba Niang

With independence from France finally achieved, the white administrators of the Senegalese Chamber of Commerce are ousted from their offices by a group of local businessmen (who promptly accept hefty bribes from the French so that true power resides with them, “behind-the-scenes”). One businessman, El Hadji Abou Kader Beye (Leye) is preparing to marry for a third time. His first wife, Adja (Samb), and his second, Oumi (Seye) are both unhappy with his decision, as his new bride is much younger than them. But on the night of the wedding, El Hadji finds he cannot get an erection and the marriage remains unconsummated.

The beleaguered businessman confides in the President of the Chamber of Commerce who recommends he visit a marabout (a local witchdoctor). But despite the marabout’s advice, El Hadji remains impotent. Oumi visits him and invites him to her home that evening with the promise of sex; during her visit El Hadji starts to wonder if his impotency is a curse – a xala – placed on him by his second wife. Leaving his office his driver (Sagna) advises El Hadji to visit his marabout. A cure is effected but El Hadji finds his new wife has her period; he visits Oumi as arranged and he has sex with her instead. Meanwhile, El Hadji’s colleagues begin to discover that he’s running up debts he’s unable to repay, and that he’s been selling rice on the black market to maintain his social and economic standing.

His store comes under scrutiny from one of his buyers. With no stock in it, El Hadji has to reassure and cajole the man into accepting that all will be well and soon. A summons from the President of the Chamber of Commerce interrupts them. At the meeting, El Hadji is advised to go and visit his bank director. When he does so, he’s told that any further advances he needs will be dependent on his clearing his existing debts. But it’s at a further Chamber of Commerce meeting that El Hadji finds his future  as both a member and a businessman in jeopardy, and he still has no idea who placed the xala on him to begin with, or why.

Xala - scene

There’s a French proverb that goes, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. It means, the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is the theme at the heart of Sembene’s scathing look at contemporary politics in Senegal during the Seventies (and as adapted from his own novel of the same name). Xala is unapologetic  in its attempts to expose the continuing corruption that plagues the country, whoever is in power, and it paints a powerful portrait of the ways in which that corruption affects the poor and the disadvantaged. Viewed now after forty years, and with much more known about the ways in which Colonial Africa overthrew its European masters, only to prove even more ruinous in its inability to govern itself, the movie is a candid snapshot of the times.

Sembene tells the audience everything they need to know about the political backdrop to the movie in the opening scenes where the local businessmen take over the Chamber of Commerce with all the pomp and circumstance of men acting with a moral certainty. The white administrators are rudely dispensed with, but are soon back, with briefcases full of money, one for each of the men who are supposed to be “better” than they are. With the bribes accepted eagerly, one of them hangs around as the President’s “advisor”, hovering in the background like a political fixer of old. The old corrupt system is dead, long live the new corrupt system. And once Sembene has established that indeed, things will remain the same, he focuses on El Hadji as an example of the greed and selfishness that were – and are – endemic in African politics.

The businessman’s lifestyle, or at least the lifestyles of his two wives, along with the cost of marrying a third, soon proves to be his undoing. Such is El Hadji’s need to be seen to be ascending the social and political ladder, it results in his risking everything to arrive and stay there. Like so many African leaders in the post-Colonial era, the temptation to appropriate resources for himself – and at the expense of the people – is shown as an extension of his usual business practice, a refinement if you will of sharp practice. The only difference between Xala and real life is that Sembene doesn’t let El Hadji off the hook, and his comeuppance is both well-deserved and horrible at the same time.

Although there is a great deal of drama to be had from El Hadji’s shady wheeling and dealing, it doesn’t come along until well after the halfway mark. Until then, the movie follows a recognisably European comic scenario, with the new groom afflicted by a bout of impotence that sees him berated by his new mother-in-law, and encouraged to approach his new wife on all fours with a fetish in his mouth that makes him look like some kind of dentally challenged vampire (it’s all part of a “cure”). There’s good fun to be had from the way in which this serious businessman, now in a position of power, will yield to the most bizarre of behaviours in order to regain his potency, and how he’ll let his first two wives dominate him. Sembene also pokes fun at El Hadji’s increasing “Europeanisation” through his wearing of Western clothing beneath more traditional robes, and his pretentious assertion that he only drinks bottled water (and which is used to fill his car’s radiator at one point).

Sembene also casts a judicious eye on El Hadji’s surroundings, spending time with those less fortunate than his main character, and speaking up for the rights of the disenfranchised and the disabled. As this storyline becomes more and more important to the narrative, Sembene more closely examines the ways in which this abandoned section of Senegalese society should have more of a voice than it does. Their ultimate effect on the fate of El Hadji is introduced with great skill by Sembene and leads to one of the most terrible of movie endings, but one that retains a redemptive feel, both for them and for El Hadji.

Xala - scene2

The movie has a washed-out colour scheme that may well be due to the film stock available for Sembene to use, but even so it makes for an effective reflection on the murky practices of El Hadji and the Chamber of Commerce (and their puppet masters). The soundtrack is filtered through the bustle of street life, and the occasional bursts of music enliven what is a mostly sombre tale. Sembene shows a complete confidence in the material throughout, and if he slips up occasionally in his attempts to make El Hadji as emotionally impotent as he is physically, then he can be forgiven for trying to add another layer to the character’s problems.

Rating: 8/10 – forthright and critical in its depiction of post-Colonial political corruption, and with a compelling comic sensibility, Xala tells it’s story simply and with a sense of righteous indignity; there are times when it seems as if we’re watching a documentary, but Sembene directs with compassion and no small amount of skill.

Ossos (1997)

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Ossos

aka Bones

D: Pedro Costa / 94m

Cast: Vanda Duarte, Nuno Vaz, Mariya Lipkina, Isobel Ruth, Inês de Medeiros, Miguel Sermão

Clotilde (Duarte) lives in one of the poorest districts in Lisbon, the infamous Estrela d’Africa. She works as a cleaner in more affluent properties, and has a husband (Sermão) who treats her badly and a daughter. When her friend, Tina (Lipkina) comes home after giving birth to an unwanted baby, she tries her best to support her. But Tina isn’t bonding with her baby, and her partner (Vaz) doesn’t want very much to do with the child either. But when he suspects that Tina is trying to kill herself and the baby, he takes it away and tries to sell it on the street. He’s unsuccessful, however, but the baby falls ill and he takes it to a hospital. There he and the baby attract the attention of a nurse (Ruth) who takes an interest in their plight.

She takes the father back to her home and tries to learn more about his predicament, but he’s rude to her and leaves abruptly. The baby is allowed to go home the next day, and its father takes her back to the nurse’s home. He tries to leave it there but the nurse is unable (and unwilling) to take on the responsibility. Clotilde, meanwhile, begins taking Tina with her on her cleaning jobs. But away from these jobs, Tina remains listless and uninterested in the idea of being a mother. When Clotilde is unwell, Tina takes on one of her cleaning jobs, but when the client (who proves to be the nurse) comes home she finds Tina slumped on the kitchen floor with the gas on; she rescues her just in time. The father tries again to divest himself of the baby, and is successful in giving it to a prostitute (de Medeiros).

The nurse visits Tina to ensure she’s okay, while Clotilde returns to work. Matters begin to settle down, but there’s a sense that the father should be made to pay for his actions regarding the baby.

Ossos - scene

Actually filmed in Lisbon’s notoriously poverty-stricken “Estrela d’Africa” Fontainhas district, Ossos is an unremittingly bleak look at the lives of a handful of its inhabitants. It’s a dark, depressing drama, reflecting the milieu of the district and giving the viewer a glimpse at the impoverished area that its characters do their best to survive in. There’s a telling moment early on when the father is seen striding along a street with the baby in tow, and the reality of the area’s physical decay is evident in the various dilapidated buildings and overall sense of a blighted community. By focusing on this terrible state of affairs, writer/director Costa paints a convincing portrait of blasted lives and the continual struggle to maintain some semblance of “normality”.

Tina’s estrangement from her child is told with a dispassionate faux-documentary feel – indeed the whole movie has that approach – and as a result the movie keeps its distance from its characters, observing them more than engaging with them. The movie contains a mix of static close ups (often held for some time) and medium shots that emphasise the sense of separation that Costa wants the viewer to experience. By keeping his characters at a remove, Ossos becomes more of a social study, and proves gloomily effective as a result.

Making the most of its dismal mise-en-scene, the movie highlights the ways in which even the most disadvantaged try and make the most of what they have (even if it seems painfully little). Clotilde has a job that constantly reminds her of her place in society, her clients’ homes so much cleaner (thanks to her), warmer and welcoming. And yet she perseveres, doing her best to overcome the shortcomings of her own life, and doing her best to help Tina when she most needs it. She’s a good woman who doesn’t know any other way of dealing with the life she lives. In contrast, her husband has given up trying to make any difference in his own life, and is recalcitrant and dismissive of others who continue trying; or worse, who achieve any significant changes.

It’s not entirely doom-and-gloom, but does seem like it. However, Costa finds unexpected humour in the way his female characters interact with each other, their caring attitude and natural affinity reminding the viewer – and themselves – that there’s always hope, even in the worst of situations. It’s a positive message, and one that holds its own amongst the grime and sombre depredations of daily life in Fontainhas. This makes some scenes more rewarding than others, and the movie constantly surprising, despite its uncompromising tone. It’s a testament to Costa’s confidence in his material that these aspects make as much impression as they do.

He elicits quietly understated performances from his cast, with Duarte’s androgynous-looking Clotilde the movie’s early focus. Vaz is appropriately arrogant and childlike, his dogged determination to rid himself of his child the actions of a spoilt teenager unprepared for so much responsibility. Lipkina has the least to do, her fixed gaze cleverly indicating the worlds within worlds that make up her vacant stare. And Roth adds humanity to the piece with her kind-hearted nurse acting as the way in for any viewers having trouble connecting with the other characters.

With the narrative petering out by the movie’s end, Ossos isn’t entirely successful in what it does, but as a penetrating look at the lives of Lisbon’s disenfranchised, it packs a significant punch. The story and plot may be slight but it retains enough of a hook to make it an emotional, and rewarding, viewing experience.

Rating: 8/10 – a minor classic from Portugal, and evidence that slum life can be as positive as any other, Ossos is never far from astonishing thanks to Costa’s considered, measured approach; thought-provoking and resonant on many levels, it’s a movie that honours the residents of Fontainhas, and does so without being in any way pretentious.

Planeta bur (1962)

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Planeta bur

aka Planeta Burg; Planet of Storms; Planet of Tempests; Storm Planet

D: Pavel Klushantsev / 78m

Cast: Vladimir Yevelyanov, Georgi Zhzhyonov, Gennadi Vernov, Yuriy Sarantsev, Georgiy Teykh, Kyunna Ignatova

Three spaceships from the Soviet Union – Vega, Sirius and Capella – are approaching Venus when one of them, Capella, is struck by a meteorite and destroyed. The mission requires two of the ships to land on Venus while the remaining ship stays in orbit. But Capella’s replacement, Arcturus, will take four months to reach Venus, a situation the cosmonauts on board Sirius – Ilya (Yemelyanov), Aleksey (Zhzhyonov) and Roman (Vernov) – find unacceptable. They hatch a plan to land on Venus using a glider and one of the ships, but it means someone having to stay in orbit and monitor their progress on the planet. This falls to Masha (Ignatova), a Vega crew member. In the end, it’s her fellow crew members, Scherba (Sarantsev) and Dr Kern (Teykh), along with Kern’s robot John, who make the trip in the glider. However, when they land, all communication with them is lost.

The Sirius crew land in their ship to look for them. They encounter a strange, rocky environment that is perpetually shrouded in mist. They identify their colleagues’ location and set out in a hover car to find them, but not before Aleksey is almost killed by a carnivorous plant-like creature. Realising that Venus holds more dangers than they’d expected, they proceed with caution. Meanwhile, Scherba and Kern have encountered another danger, lizard-like creatures that walk upright. Fighting them off they soon find another problem: with their spacesuits torn in places, they’ve become susceptible to the air on Venus and are getting sick. They hole up in a cave and wait for their colleagues to find them.

Locking onto their position, Ilya, Aleksey and Roman find themselves under attack, this time from a creature resembling a pterodactyl (they’ve already encountered what appears to be a brontosaurus). Their hover car is damaged and ends up at the bottom of a lake. With communication lost with everyone on the surface, Masha has to decide whether or not she should mount her own rescue mission or wait for Arcturus to arrive. With time running out, the hover car is rescued from the lake and Ilya and his two colleagues get closer to finding their comrades. But not before Scherba, Kern and John have to deal with the lava flow from a nearby volcano. And all the while an ethereal female voice can be heard both in the distance and incredibly close by…

Planeta bur - scene

Viewed now, over fifty years on, Planeta bur is less of a curio than you might expect. While it’s not very prescient in terms of future science, and retains a quaint approach to some of its technology – Masha records her thoughts about making her rescue mission on a reel-to-reel tape recorder – there’s more than enough going on to keep the viewer interested, even if there are some unfortunately comic moments.

The trick is to put aside what we know now about Venus, and just go with the flow. After a stodgy opening period where the characters are introduced and the dilemma of landing on Venus is discussed and then decided on, the meat of the movie is introduced and we get to see the rugged, inhospitable landscape that represents the planet’s surface, as well as some very unpleasant inhabitants. It’s like a science fiction movie crossed with a disaster epic, as the cosmonauts encounter danger after danger, from man-eating plants to mini-Godzilla-like creatures to sudden volcanic eruptions. And though the pace is unhurried, there’s still enough tension built up between the various scenes of peril to keep the viewer interested and engaged.

In between these scenes there’s also time for the characters to wax philosophical about the origins of life on Venus and Earth – maybe we’re all descended from Martians – and the importance of the mission to the people back home in the Soviet Union (there’s even a short sequence where Masha envisions a parade with appropriately cheering masses in attendance). These interludes add a layer of intellectual gravitas to what is essentially an adventure, and is matched by the serious, intense nature of the cast and their performances. Yemelyanov looks like he’s lost the ability to smile, while Zhzhyonov’s eagerness to land on Venus makes him appear reckless. As the sole female on the mission, Ignatova looks concerned, worried and fearful throughout, and Teykh goes the opposite way ands affects a disinterested, unemotional stance that befits his reserved character.

The special effects employed range from the casually simple, such as the space suits, to the impressively clever, such as the hover car (which really looks like it’s floating a good foot off the ground). The locations, though feeling restricted, are used to very good effect, and there’s an otherworldly feel to them that adds a level of eeriness to proceedings. Klushantsev orchestrates the various alien encounters without overdoing it in terms of increasing the pace or making it look as if the cosmonauts are in any real danger, but their encounters are effective enough and shot with a good deal of style (if a little restrained at the same time). While some of the creatures remind the viewer of the budgetary constraints, again there’s a quaintness to it all that makes up for any shortcomings.

Concluding with a couple of revolutionary sounding songs extolling the virtues of both Earth and Venus, the movie has a satisfactory ending that hints at a possible sequel (but which sadly never happened). What did sadly happen is that American International Pictures got hold of the movie and re-edited it twice to make two vastly inferior “new” versions: Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965), with Basil Rathbone added to the mix, and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968), directed by Peter Bogdanovich and with Mamie Van Doren added instead. Neither movie has much to recommend it, and should be avoided at all costs.

Rating: 7/10 – a little clunky in places, but thankfully free of too much ideology or Soviet propaganda, Planeta bur is a serious sci-fi movie that has much to say about the idea of space exploration; entertaining throughout, and as an entry movie into the career of the under-appreciated Klushantsev, definitely a good place to start.

Trailer: Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a trailer for Planeta bur available.

Insurgent (2015)

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Insurgent

D: Robert Schwentke / 119m

Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Jai Courtney, Mekhi Phifer, Zoë Kravitz, Maggie Q, Daniel Dae Kim, Jonny Weston, Ashley Judd, Ray Stevenson, Tony Goldwyn, Janet McTeer

In the aftermath of the attack on Abnegation, a search reveals a box that contains all the faction symbols. It’s taken to Erudite where Jeanine (Winslet) reveals it holds a message from the city’s elders, but only a Divergent can open it; this leads Jeanine to order that all Divergents are rounded up. Meanwhile, Tris (Woodley), Four (James), Caleb (Elgort) and Peter (Teller) are hiding out in Amity, under the protection of their leader Johanna (Spencer). Tris is all for returning to Erudite and killing Jeanine but Four warns against acting so hastily: they need to be a stronger force before they can attack the ruling faction.

Matters are brought to a head when Dauntless leader Max (Phifer) arrives to look for any Divergents. Peter reveals their presence but Tris, Four and Caleb manage to escape on a train that takes them into Factionless territory. There they meet Evelyn (Watts), the Factionless leader who, it turns out, is Four’s mother. She advocates a coalition between Factionless and the remainder of Dauntless. The next day, Tris, Four and Caleb leave to visit Candor, where the remainder of Dauntless have taken refuge. On the way, Caleb tells Tris he can’t go with them and they part. In Candor, their leader, Jack (Dae Kim) arranges a trial to determine the truth of Four’s insistence that Jeanine is lying to the other factions. A raid by Max and Eric (Courtney) leads to Tris being tested and found to be 100% Divergent. The raid is unsuccessful though and Tris is rescued by Four and Candor. At Erudite, Peter tells Jeanine the best way in which she can trap Tris. With the lives of all in Candor at risk because of Tris’s presence there, she determines to turn herself in.

At Erudite, Tris is apprehended and taken in front of Jeanine. She explains about the box and has Tris hooked up to it. In order to open it, Tris has to pass each Faction test, something none of the other Divergents abducted by Jeanine has managed. With Caleb having rejoined Erudite, and Peter also on their side, Tris can only hope that whatever message the box holds, that she will survive the ordeal long enough to learn what it is, and what it means for the city.

Insurgent - scene

After the prolonged set up and introduction of each Faction and the world they support that made up most of Divergent (2014), you’d think Insurgent would be less reliant on large chunks of awkward exposition. But it’s not the case, as this instalment introduces new characters and broadens the original’s scope. This leads to more explanations for everyone’s behaviour and more occasions where the not-exactly-complicated story has to be explained every step of the way (as if the audience wouldn’t be able to keep up). Which is a shame, as this time around, Tris’s newfound place in her world is much more interesting and exciting to be a part of.

Weighed down by the expectations that come with cinema’s version of “middle child syndrome” (and even though Allegiant will be released in two parts – damn you Harry Potter!), Insurgent gets a lot right. It ups the action content, makes the heroes more heroic, the villains more villainous, and ends with the news that we’ve all been waiting to hear: next time we go outside the wall. The movie couldn’t be more designed to please its audience, both existing and new. And that’s another factor that makes the movie work: you don’t have to have seen Divergent to work out what’s going on. Such is the care that’s been taken with the adaptation of the book, that even though there are huge chunks that are missing (including whole storylines), it’s a tribute to screenwriters Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman and Mark Bomback that this is a well constructed, and surprisingly streamlined version that holds its own and isn’t reliant on the first movie.

It also moves the characters forward in unexpected ways. Tris is hell-bent on killing Jeanine which isn’t the usual approach in a YA movie (you’d never expect to hear Katniss Everdeen sound so vehement about President Snow as Tris is about Jeanine). It’s refreshing to see someone be that blunt and not harbour any deep-seated guilt or reservations about the rights or wrongs of such a thing; Tris is resigned and more importantly, she can’t wait to do it. As for her love interest, the taciturn Four, we get to see him deal with a greater authority than Eric or Max, or even his dad: his mother, presumed dead all these years and as determined to get Jeanine almost as much as Tris. While he wrestles with his emotional scars, Tris gets down to the task of taking out Jeanine; it’s like he’s not even supporting her anymore.

Of course, true love overcomes any dispute or disagreement and Tris and Four leave their differences behind when it comes to overthrowing Erudite, and although the message in the box is one that only readers of the novel will have seen coming, it’s still a treat to see it revealed in such a dramatic, world-upsetting way. It’s yet another way in which new director Schwentke keeps things interesting and the viewer on their toes. He makes judicious use of the new cast members, with even Watts (who has Big Villain written all over her) required to keep it simple and not detract from the main storyline, that of Tris learning to forgive herself for the deaths of her parents and the turncoat Will. Woodley, still the best thing in both movies, shades her emotions with ease and presents a version of Tris that is still learning but who’s also streets ahead of her rebellious companions (but then she is Divergent).

The rest of the cast offer and provide excellent support, with special mention going to Courtney, Spencer, Watts and Teller, though Elgort is still stuck with possibly the blandest character in the whole series, and suffers as a result; he just can’t make him interesting. Winslet is icy and controlling and strangely attractive because of all that, and steals each scene she’s in. The final scene robs us of a major character and is a great way to end this movie and set up some of the dramatics of the next, but it also feels like a bit of a cheap shot at the audience’s expense. What, do we ask, does that mean for Tris and Four and all the rest? Well, to find out, tune in next year!

Rating: 7/10 – better than Divergent, and better assembled, Insurgent shows the franchise gaining in confidence and moving ahead in the right direction; not without its flaws – Peter is still an annoyingly underwritten character – the movie packs a lot in and, on the whole, makes it all work with a great deal of panache.

Charlotte for Ever (1986)

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Charlotte for Ever

D: Serge Gainsbourg / 90m

Cast: Serge Gainsbourg, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Roland Bertin, Roland Dubillard, Anne Zamberlan, Anne Le Guernec, Sabeline Campo

Stanley (Serge Gainsbourg) is a movie maker who is down on his luck. His wife has recently died in a car accident and he has no money; all he has left is his daughter, Charlotte (Gainsbourg). He tries to get an advance for a new script from his friend, Herman (Dubillard), but it comes with a condition: he must come up with the script in a week’s time.

Charlotte blames him for the death of her mother. The car she was in, and which Stanley was driving, crashed into a petrol tanker. The subsequent explosion killed Stanley’s wife, and left him with a burned hand. He displays regret and sadness at her death but refuses to be made to feel guilty about what happened. Charlotte battles against him, being obstinate and aggressive and continually challenging his assertions about the accident and his lack of culpability. She also takes issue with his liaisons with young women who appear at their home on a regular basis.

Stanley receives a visit from his doctor, Leon (Bertin) who is gay and has recently split up from his boyfriend. Leon is depressed and unhappy, but Stanley is unsupportive toward him; only Charlotte shows him any sympathy. His visit encourages Stanley to think more on the script he needs to write. But instead of coming up with something original he decides to plagiarise the work of Benjamin Constant. When the script is finished, Stanley gives it to Herman who thinks it’s terrific. Leon is present when he reads through it, though, and he tells Herman what Stanley has done. Herman is furious, but Stanley is oblivious and hits on him again for money.

Charlotte encounters Adelaide (Le Guernec), one of her father’s conquests, and angry at her (and him), she attacks her. Stanley discovers them and makes Adelaide leave before he attempts to placate Charlotte. She shows some remorse for her actions, and later, tells her father that she never really blamed him for her mother’s death.

Charlotte for Ever - scene

With a screenplay filled to the brim with literary and sexual references galore, as well as a few literally sexual references, Charlotte for Ever, the brainchild of multi-talented Serge Gainsbourg, is a movie that any viewer will hope is just that: a movie. Because if it isn’t, and it only semi-accurately describes the relationship between real-life father and daughter Serge and Charlotte, then this psycho-sexual drama is likely to leave a sour taste in the mouth.

From the opening scene where Stanley tells Herman how his attention has been transferred from his wife to Charlotte, and his speech becomes more and more erotically charged (with more than one reference to Nabokov’s Lolita to reinforce the issue), the movie becomes an uncomfortable experience to watch as he manipulates his conversations with his daughter, and the viewer is left wondering if Gainsbourg the writer/director/father isn’t averse to sharing his real feelings for Gainsbourg the actress/daughter. Charlotte Gainsbourg was fifteen when the movie was made, and there are scenes where she appears topless, including one that involves her being manhandled by her father. It may be that Charlotte was a willing, and completely aware, participant in the movie, but the fact that Gainsbourg chose his daughter for the role, and not another actress, doesn’t make it any easier to appreciate.

Added to this is Gainsbourg’s continual use of sexual rhetoric and innuendo, best displayed (if “best” is the right word) in a scene where Charlotte is doing her homework. It consists of a series of questions that she asks for his help with. One question is: “What quality do you most admire in a woman?” Stanley’s response is: “Her wetness.” There are other examples where Stanley’s blunt, unapologetic use of single entendres is used and most of them are wince-inducing. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Gainsbourg is playing with the audience, but the fact that he’s using his daughter as part of the game makes it all the more unconscionable. It’s also like seeing a naughty schoolboy trying to shock his teachers: the schoolboy knows what he’s doing will cause a stir, but he doesn’t have the context that would make it more palatable – or forgivable.

With the supporting characters in place for Stanley (and Gainsbourg) to feel superior to, the movie ends up looking and sounding more like a vanity piece than a fully realised drama. Everyone talks in an arch, mannered way of speaking that features literary quotes, apothegms, precepts and quasi-philosophical assertions that are only superficially astute. It’s the type of cod-intellectual rambling that is meant to make its author sound erudite and cultivated, but which in reality makes them sound asinine instead. Gainsbourg gives himself a lot of these meandering speeches – and not one sounds convincing.

The performances suffer as a result, with Gainsbourg appearing disinterested in his own movie and prowling around in scenes as if he can’t quite decide which mark he should be hitting. He continually grabs and paws at his daughter, and wears a black glove on his right hand to denote his injury from the car crash. Alas, this gloved hand is used more as an affectation as Gainsbourg waves it around to indicate all sorts of feelings that he can’t clarify through speech or expression. In the end, it’s a lazy, semi-committed performance that soon becomes boring to watch. As for Charlotte, she provides emotional responses to Stanley’s behaviour that match the affected way in which he behaves, but which prove too wayward and inconsistent for comfort. There are glimpses of the slightly removed acting style that has stood her in good stead in the years since, but here she’s pretty much a puppet being moved around at will by her father.

Curious viewers, or fans of Gainsbourg pére et fille, will find no one to sympathise with (or recognise), and even less to engage with beyond a handful of gratuitous scenes of female nudity. The ending is abrupt and unrewarding given all that’s gone before, but at least it brings to a close a tale that manages, with considerable ease, to be both tawdry and pretentious.

Rating: 2/10 – sometimes a movie is just a dud and that’s all there is to it, and Charlotte for Ever is the movie that proves the rule; with only Gainsbourg’s disco-themed score to recommend it, this sad, alienating movie shows him not at the peak of his powers (which were considerable) but declining badly – and seemingly unconcerned.

NOTE: The “trailer” is more of a promo video for the song that plays over the opening credits (and at various times during the movie).

The Keeper of Lost Causes (2013)

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Keeper of Lost Causes, The

Original title: Kvinden i buret

aka The Woman in the Cage

D: Mikkel Nørgaard / 97m

Cast: Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Fares Fares, Sonja Richter, Peter Plaugborg, Søren Pilmark, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Troels Lyby

Following a police raid that leaves his partner, Hardy (Lyby) paralysed and another officer dead, detective Carl Mørck (Kaas) is transferred out of homicide and into Department Q, which deals exclusively with cold cases. His brief, along with his assistant, Assad (Fares), is to review the cases, submit a brief report and then close them. The first case he looks at concerns the apparent suicide of politician Merete Lynggaard (Richter) five years ago. Something about the case doesn’t make sense to Mørck and he reopens the investigation. He looks through the witness statements and finds that one statement wasn’t included in the final report: that Merete’s brother, Uffe (Følsgaard), who was with her on the ferry she is supposed to have jumped overboard from, was seen with a man in a raincoat.

Since Merete’s suicide, Uffe has resided in a home. Mørck and Assad visit him but his condition – brain damage from a car accident when he and Merete were children – prevents him from being of any help. A conversation with one of Merete’s colleagues reveals her liaison with a man at a conference shortly before she killed herself. Mørck gets hold of the list of attendees and photos that were taken at the conference. Suspecting that Uffe might recognise one of the men at the conference, they show him the various photos that show Merete and one of the male delegates. Uffe does recognise one of them, a man named Daniel Hale. With a solid lead to work with, Mørck’s investigation is brought up short by his boss, Marcus (Pilmark) following a complaint by the manager of the home and the original investigating officer. Unable to let things go, Mørck continues his investigation and travels to Sweden to speak to Hale.

When he and Assad get there, they discover that Hale died a few months after Merete’s suicide. They also discover that the man who attended the conference and was recognised by Uffe isn’t Daniel Hale. Learning that the man is likely to be a friend of Hale’s known as Lasse, the pair return to Denmark only to be suspended from duty. But again, Mørck can’t let things drop, and their investigation leads to an isolated farmhouse and a revelation involving the car accident that left Uffe in his current condition.

Keeper of Lost Causes, The - scene

The first of four movies adapted from Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q novels – The Absent One (2014), A Conspiracy of Faith (2015), and The Purity of Vengeance (TBC) complete the quartet – The Keeper of Lost Causes is an efficient, gripping thriller that introduces possibly one of the dourest police detectives in recent cinema history. At one point, Assad remarks that he’s never seen Mørck smile. Mørck’s response? “My wife left me. My colleague’s dead, and my best friend’s a cripple … I don’t have a lot to smile about.” It’s a pithy, succinct summation of Mørck’s character, and while it seems in keeping with the recent trend in Scandinavian crime fiction and movies, the combination of Mørck’s gloomy outlook on life and Kaas’s glum demeanour raise this particular movie into the above average category.

With the central character so firmly established in the opening fifteen minutes, the movie is then free to concentrate on the mystery surrounding Merete’s apparent suicide. But as Mørck begins to piece together the clues that point to something more sinister, the script by Nikolaj Arcel takes a parallel line and shows the viewer what happened that day on the ferry. It’s a bold move, as the mystery elements inherent in the story are jettisoned in favour of a more cross-linear approach where the events of five years before run concurrently with the progress of Mørck’s investigation. This leaves the viewer with an entirely different type of crime drama than seems in play from the beginning, and while the villain of the piece enters the story quite late in the day, their appearance and the reason for their behaviour is cleverly revealed (even if what they actually do isn’t properly explained or feels credible).

The plot and various storylines play out with a surprising attention to detail, and Arcel’s adaptation does a good job of downplaying any implausibilities such as Mørck’s boss Marcus ignoring the progress he’s made in disputing the suicide theory. This aside, the movie is a solid, methodically paced crime drama that works best by keeping it simple, and Nørgaard’s unfussy, yet expressive direction is best exemplified by two moments of unexpected lyricism relating to Merete’s childhood. He’s good with the cast as well, eliciting strong, confident performances from all concerned. Kaas’s downbeat yet focused portrayal of Mørck is one of the things that makes the movie work so well; he’s completely credible as the impatient, disrespectful and arrogant ex-homicide detective who finds a new home in Department Q. And he’s matched for dedication and immersion in the role by Fares as Assad. Fares, who is Lebanese, spent two months learning Danish for the movie, but you wouldn’t know it. Assad is the sidekick role, but Fares brings a determination and an intelligence to the role that a lot of seasoned actors would have skirted past on their way to a more stereotypical portrayal.

Shot by DoP Eric Kress with an emphasis on dark, shadowy interiors and overcast, cloudy exteriors, the movie is recognisably part of the recent Nordic Noir genre that has spawned a myriad of similar tales both on the big screen and television. But thanks to a clever script, a director on top of his game, and a cast that brings credibility to (almost) every scene, The Keeper of Lost Causes is a terrific first movie in the series. If this outing is anything to go by, then the remaining three movies will definitely be ones to watch.

Rating: 8/10 – a well-paced, intelligent, and above all, absorbing crime thriller, The Keeper of Lost Causes is a testament to good story telling; quietly ambitious, the movie is a terrific example of how to maintain suspense without undermining either the plot or the characters.

29 February (2006)

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29 February

Original title: 2 wol 29 il

aka The Curse of February 29th; February 29

D: Jung Jong-hoon / 90m

Cast: Park Eun-hye, Lim Ho, Lee Myung-jin, Lim Hyun-kyung, Kim Jae-man, Son Jung-bum

Ji-yeon (Park) works the late shift at a tollgate. It’s dull, unexciting work until the evening of February 27th. Just before her shift ends, the tollgate suffers an unexpected blackout. While Ji-yeon wonders what’s happening, a car comes up to her booth. She takes the ticket given to her by the driver, who quickly speeds off. Only then does Ji-yeon realise the ticket is covered in blood. The power comes back on and she goes home after being relieved by her friend Jong-sook (Lim Hyun-kyung). The next day Ji-yeon learns there was a murder at a nearby tollgate. Her friend jokes that it’s the curse of the tollgate, and tells her about an accident involving a prison bus that exploded and the female murderer who was supposed to have died in the fire. The story goes that her body was never found, and now every leap year, she comes back to claim more victims.

Ji-yeon is affected by the story, and has a nightmare in which she sees the woman’s burned face. She’s visited by the police officers (Lim Ho, Lee) who are looking into the murder, but she’s not able to tell them much. That night the tollgate suffers another blackout and the same car returns, again with a bloodstained ticket. The police, now dealing with two murders, become more involved, especially when they learn that the blood isn’t from the victims. Ji-yeon tells them the story of the female murderer, and though they’re not entirely convinced, they still look into it. When they show Ji-yeon a photo of the woman, she identifies her straight away as the woman she’s seen.

Having originally taken the night of the 29th off to celebrate Jong-sook’s birthday, Ji-yeon is horrified to learn that her friend has agreed to cover someone else’s shift that night. Ji-yeon rushes to the tollgate but is too late to stop Jong-sook from being murdered. With visions of the woman becoming more prevalent, and finding it difficult to sleep, Ji-yeon goes back to work accompanied by the police, who lie in wait for the car and its murderous occupant to return to the tollgate.

29 February - scene

Part of a series of four horror movies made and released in 2006 – the others being Hidden Floor, Dark Forest, and Roommates – this is a somewhat slight tale that might have played better as a short, and which never completely capitalises on its basic premise. Opening with a journalist’s visit to a mental hospital – where we first meet Ji-yeon as a patient – her story is told in flashback as we witness the events that have driven her to fear for her life. What unfolds is a familiar tale of haunting and murder that has much in common with other K-Horror (and even J-Horror) movies, but which doesn’t offer – at least at first – any reason for the ghostly murderer to be targeting Ji-yeon in the first place.

With the movie holding out for a more rational explanation of events nearer the end, the viewer is left with the feeling that the script, co-written by director Jung and Yoo Il-han, has been cobbled together with the idea of including as many unlikely scares and supernatural confrontations as it can manage without appearing too silly. That it manages to avoid this – though only just – is due to the relatively matter-of-fact approach Jung takes to the material, and the otherwise mundane way in which the plot unfolds. Ji-yeon becomes increasingly disturbed, the police remain baffled and confused, and the ghostly murderer pops up in all manner of places (see picture above) just to keep things from getting too staid. It’s not exactly a tired movie, just one that doesn’t try very hard.

Of course, horror movies by and large don’t have to make perfect sense, but it does help, especially when strange events are given what appears to be a rational explanation. And with the journalist’s interview with Ji-yeon having ended, the movie comes up with what it wants the audience to believe is the definitive spin on events. However, while it makes superficial sense, it’s so full of holes that even a viewer who’s only been paying partial attention will realise how daft it is. And then the movie trumps it’s own conclusions by adding on a twist that both supports and undermines both premises altogether (which is quite clever when you think about it).

The cast are proficient enough with Park keeping what could have been a more hysterical performance in check, and making Ji-yeon a more sympathetic character in the process (though when she’s required to look exhausted, instead she looks like she’s on drugs). Lim Ho as the senior Inspector who suffers an (initially) unexplained arm injury adds a layer of world-weariness to matters, while Lee plays the junior officer with a brash good nature that shows there is some comedy to be squeezed from the script. The rest of the cast don’t really make of a connection, with Kim’s journalist proving too vapid and Son’s hospital orderly too smug.

Jung, whose only feature to date this is, handles the supernatural elements well enough but the jump scares lack the visceral intensity to make them work as effectively as they should. And more could have been made of the tollgate location, but alas the camerawork is sluggish and there are too many occasions where it fails to take advantage of its surprisingly creepy vibe. With so little tension being created, Jung ploughs forward in the hope of the movie having an accumulative effect, but by the time it reaches its final confrontation, the movie doesn’t have enough left to get excited about.

Rating: 5/10 – serviceable, but too bland to be anywhere near terrifying, 29 February coasts along for much of its running time hoping to make an impression; that it doesn’t is due to a pallid script and an approach we’ve seen too many times before, making it one for K-Horror completists only.

TRAILER: There is a trailer for 29 February but it doesn’t have English subtitles. If anyone still wants to see it, it can be found here.

90 Minutes (2012)

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90 Minutes

Original title: 90 minutter

D: Eva Sørhaug / 89m

Cast: Bjørn Floberg, Mads Ousdal, Pia Tjelta, Aksel Hennie, Annmari Kastrup, Kaia Varjord

Johan (Floberg) has reached a point in his life where he’s made a profound decision as to his immediate future. He’s determined to put several aspects of his life behind him, such as the room he rents and a subscription he’s taken out. As he makes these changes, he’s goes about them with a sense of finality and sadness. Fred (Ousdal) is a cop who’s marriage to Elin (Tjelta) has ended in divorce. They have two young children, both girls, and Fred’s presence in their home while Elin plans a party is being tolerated by his ex-wife. When she takes a call from someone who is coming to the party and is currently playing golf, Fred assumes the man is the new love in her life, something that he isn’t happy about. Trond (Hennie) is a young man who appears to be living alone in a sparsely furnished apartment. He listens to the radio and tapes up his right hand but otherwise seems unmotivated. He goes into his bedroom, where he strips and has sex with a woman (Varjord) who is gagged and tied to the bed. Also in the room is a baby, which starts crying.

Johan arrives back home from a trip out. His wife, Hanna (Kastrup), is there. He begins to prepare dinner for them while Hanna has a shower. He is methodical and precise and makes sure that everything is just so. Fred begins to antagonise Elin by refusing to leave when she asks him to, and by complaining that she never seemed interested in golf before. He also finds excuses to remain there that involve either their children, or a neighbour. Elin loses her patience and insists that he leave. He eventually does so, and drives off angrily. Trond releases the woman tied to his bed to see to the baby. She is his partner, Karianne, and the baby is theirs. With the baby seen to, she begins to cook for them both, but when she looks out of the window, Trond becomes angry and attacks her. He drags her back into the bedroom and reties her to the bed. He snorts some cocaine, then arranges to meet a friend in order to get some more.

During their dinner, Johan prepares some gravy that he lets his wife try first. She becomes woozy and soon passes out. Fred drives around until he ends up back at his old home. He gets out of his car and goes inside to confront his family. Trond is visited by his friend and another man, who assault him and take his TV as repayment for his drug debts. Angry at being humiliated he decides to take it out on Karianne. He forces her to have sex and in the process nearly suffocates her, but stops just short of doing so. All three men find themselves on the verge of having their lives changed forever.

90 Minutes - scene

Only the second feature by talented director Sørhaug after Cold Lunch (2008), 90 Minutes is a bleak, uncompromising slice of Norwegian angst that gives the barest amount of detail for each man’s behaviour, and is coldly judgmental when it comes to the outcomes of each story. We meet each man at a stage where their individual journeys have reached a point of no return (though Trond’s is a little less cut and dried).

Johan’s actions are calculated and, in their own way, heartless and cruel. There may be an element of love involved in his actions toward Hanna, but the absence of any concrete reason for his actions doesn’t allow for any sympathy from the viewer. It’s clear he does have a reason for doing what he’s doing but Sørhaug is clever enough to make that reason irrelevant; his sadness tells us enough, and as we watch Johan carry out his plan, the sense of foreboding that builds is carefully orchestrated to the point where inevitability and hope collide, leaving a melancholy chill over the storyline that is quietly and unquestionably effective. Floberg is subdued, almost absent throughout, his careworn face providing all the information we need as to what he’s feeling. Of the three men he’s the most restrained and the most agonised, and Floberg gives perhaps the best performance as a result.

Fred is a man with unresolved marital issues and a simmering layer of anger lurking beneath an outwardly pleasant façade. Of the three men he’s the most recognisable and understandable, his jealous possessiveness a staple of marital dramas the world over. Sadly, this very familiarity stops Sørhaug from making his and Elin’s storyline from being anything more than entirely predictable, and his return to their home has all the surprise of presents at Xmas, especially after we learn he’s “taking a break” from active duty as a cop and is behind a desk. Nevertheless, Ousdal steers clear of making Fred too obvious, and makes his face almost mask-like when around other people. It’s only when he’s in his car that we see the full range of the emotions he’s feeling and realise just where those emotions will take him. As a transformation it’s unnerving and unexpectedly affecting.

As for Trond, he’s perhaps the most tormented of the three, his drug dependency exacerbating his paranoia and abusive behaviour towards Karianne. He’s an ogre, pitiless and self-absorbed, a rapist whose abusive nature has robbed him of every last ounce of decency. His actions are abominable, and it’s a measure of Sørhaug’s script, and Hennie’s abilities as an actor, that Trond isn’t allowed even the faintest hint of understanding or redemption; he’s unlikeable all the way through. Of the three storylines, Trond’s is the most difficult to watch, with its moments of domestic violence and sexual assault, and Sørhaug (again) is clever enough to thwart the audience’s expectations. The ultimate fate of Trond and Karianne and the baby is one that allows the movie to end on a note of cautious hope, but a note that nevertheless comes without any guarantees.

90 Minutes is a hard movie to like as such, its unremittingly grim mise en scene and examination of extreme misogynistic behaviour making it tough to engage with. But Fred’s story aside, Sørhaug’s script is still intrepid enough to make the other two storylines surprisingly engrossing. She also makes the camera more of an observer than a participant, allowing a more dispassionate approach to the material that offsets the horrors being witnessed. Henrik Skram’s icy score adds another dimension to the austere proceedings, and there’s sterling camera work from Harald Gunnar Paalgard, particularly in Trond’s apartment.

Rating: 7/10 – by making Johan, Fred and Trond so unsympathetic, writer/director Sørhaug runs the risk of making 90 Minutes too unpalatable for the average viewer, but there’s enough to admire in the stringent, uncompromising set ups to make up for any distaste at the characters’ actions; one that will linger in the memory and with a cathartic moment that remains appropriately unsatisfying.

Wadjda (2012)

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Wadjda

D: Haifaa Al-Mansour / 97m

Cast: Reem Abdullah, Waad Mohammed, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Ahd, Sultan Al Assaf, Alanoud Sajini, Rafa Al Sanea, Dana Abdullilah, Rehab Ahmed, Nouf Saad, Ibrahim Almozael, Mohammed Zahir, Sara Aljaber

Wadjda (Mohammed) is an eleven year old girl living with her mother (Abdullah) in Riyadh. She regularly undermines the rules and restrictions of the school she attends, and remains unconvinced that the demands of the Qu’ran are at all necessary. She is friends with a boy, Abdullah (Al Gohani), who lives opposite her, but they have a bit of a combative friendship. When he mischievously steals her headscarf while riding his bike, Wadjda chases after him. This leads to her challenging him to a race when she has her own bike. However, the idea of girls riding bikes is frowned upon and Wadjda’s mother refuses to buy her one. But when Wadjda sees a green bike, she determines to buy it herself.

When her entrepreneurial activities at the school are curtailed by the headmistress, Ms Hussa (Ahd), Wadjda is unsure how she will raise the 800 riyals she needs to purchase the bike. Meanwhile, her mother is struggling to retain the attention of her husband and Wadjda’s father (Al Assaf); he is planning to marry a second time but Wadjda’s mother is convinced he won’t go through with it. Back at the school, Ms Hussa announces there’s to be a Qu’ran recital competition, one that carries a first prize of 1,000 riyals. Although she has little interest or knowledge in the Qu’ran, Wadjda joins the Religious Club and begins to learn sections of the Qu’ran by heart as well as the meaning of certain words and phrases. She gains the respect of Ms Hussa, and helps Abdullah when he asks to string some lights from his house to hers in aid of his uncle’s political election campaign (even though her mother is against it). While Abdullah works on the lights, Wadjda learns to ride on his bike.

The day of the recital arrives and Wadjda puts in an impressive performance. When she arrives home she finds her father there, but not her mother. She falls asleep, waking later that evening, and finds her mother up on the roof, listening to the sounds of a party nearby. It’s then that Wadjda learns both good and bad news, and receives reassurances as to her future.

Wadjda - scene

The first feature movie ever to be made fully in Saudi Arabia, and the first to be made by a female director, Wadjda is a delightful, life-affirming confection that is alternately funny, thought-provoking and heartfelt. It mixes gentle yet pointed observations about the role of women in Saudi society, and the pressures placed upon them by the male-dominated hierarchy, and finds subtle ways in which to subvert those pressures (Wadjda, for example, regularly goes about without her face covered, despite being of marital age; she also spends time with Abdullah unchaperoned, another no-no).

With nods to the neorealism of Italian cinema, this could be looked on as a variation of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1953), but while the two movies share some vital DNA, Al-Mansour’s ode to childhood determinism works on a whole different set of levels, with social constraints and religious approbation strongly to the fore, and providing a rigid backdrop against which Wadjda’s efforts to secure her bike take place. It’s a clever piece of propaganda, though, showing how little real regard Wadjda’s fellow schoolchildren have for the rules that govern their lives. One girl meets her boyfriend in secret, while two others bend the rules by using make up when they shouldn’t; Wadjda herself sells hand-braided bracelets to the other pupils. It’s fun to see these girls behaving like the children they are, but Al-Mansour is canny enough to show through the actions and behaviour of the adults around them that it won’t last forever.

This celebration of childhood goes a long way to providing the heart of the movie, allowing the viewer several insights into Saudi life through young eyes. First-timer Mohammed is superb as Wadjda, funny and endlessly expressive, a mesmerising screen presence able to raise a smile or prompt a tear with seemingly little effort. In her scenes with Abdullah there’s a genuine bond between the characters that makes their interaction entirely credible and sincere. (Al-Mansour needed plenty of rehearsal time due to the constraints imposed on her by the filming process, which meant she couldn’t mix with the male crew members; some things, it seems, have a way of working out). Abdullah is equally as good, juggling the emotional demands of losing a husband with those attendant on being – effectively – a single working mother. The scene in which she tries on a red dress – meant to remind her husband of what he’s giving up – sees Abdullah provide a powerful yet understated comment on both her character’s pride and her desperation.

There’s formidable support too from Ahd as the frosty headmistress, and Al Assaf gives an astute turn as Wadjda’s largely absent, though loving father. Al-Mansour, working from her own script, avoids filling the minor characters with stereotypes and uses her own experiences growing up to good effect, telling her story with a refreshing lack of sentimentality and using the camera like a casual observer. She shows a confident appreciation for space and depth, often sprinkling wide shots and long shots into the mix with surprising accomplishment for a first-time director. Filmed entirely in Riyadh, the city backdrop adds that extra level of authenticity without which parts of the movie wouldn’t work, such as when Wadjda and Abdullah go to confront her mother’s driver (Zahir) over his decision to quit arbitrarily. The whole thing is expertly assembled and edited by Andreas Wodraschke, and features a subtly evocative score by Max Richter that supports and enhances the action.

Rating: 9/10 – a formidable first feature from Al-Mansour that rewards the viewer throughout, Wadjda is a cinematic marvel; coming from a part of the world where there are no cinemas (except for one IMAX screen in Khobar) and no movie industry as such, this is nothing short of a major triumph and should be on everyone’s list of must-see movies.

Wetlands (2013)

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Wetlands

Original title: Feuchtgebiete

D: David Wnendt / 109m

Cast: Carla Juri, Christoph Letkowski, Marien Kruse, Meret Becker, Axel Milberg, Peri Baumeister, Edgar Selge, Clara Wunsch, Ludger Bökelmann, Bernardo Arias Porras

Helen (Juri) is a rebellious teenager whose mother (Becker) and father (Milberg) are divorced; she wants nothing more than for them to get back together. Thanks to her controlling mother’s obsession with cleanliness when Helen was growing up, Helen has developed an opposite fascination with hygiene. This has led to her suffering from haemorrhoids and having an obsessive interest in her own bodily fluids, in particular those generated by and from her vagina. She gravitates to unclean toilets and wears her underwear for days at a time. She doesn’t have a boyfriend, and uses vegetables to masturbate with. She constantly challenges those around her, and affects a disinterested, yet provocative demeanour.

She does have a friend, Corinna (Kruse), but otherwise Helen doesn’t gravitate to any of her peers (though she does have a variety of sexual encounters). She reflects on her childhood and her mother’s abusive behaviour, but most of all she muses on her personal hygiene. However, when a burst of shaving results in her sustaining a cut to her anus, it creates an anal fissure that leads to her ending up in hospital and having an operation to remove part of her anus. Recovering in her hospital room, and attended by male nurse Robin (Letkowski), Helen is told she cannot leave until she has a bowel movement. Finding herself attracted to Robin, and using the situation to try and reunite her parents, Helen delays her release, but her childhood memories keep intruding, and it leads her to a clearer understanding of the trauma that she has been suppressing, and which has propelled her into being the person she is.

Robin becomes her confidante, and though he’s in an off-again-still-off-again relationship with teaching student Valery (Baumeister), he’s still hopeful that they’ll get back together. Valery does her best to speed up Helen’s recovery, but lacks the deviousness that Helen brings to the situation. And as the time for her leaving does approach, the likelihood of Helen’s parents being reunited seems remote.

Wetlands - scene

Those viewers whose gag reflex isn’t particularly good would do well to steer clear of Wetlands, as it’s a movie unafraid to go where practically every other movie fears to tread. In terms of body horror, this is a movie that even David Cronenberg might pass on, but David Wnendt’s adaptation – co-written with Claus Falkenburg – of Charlotte Roche’s novel is by turns comic, darkly dramatic, surreal, choc-full of squeamish moments, and occasionally bizarre. It’s a smorgasbord of cruelty, nudity, self-abuse, dysfunction, psychotropic nightmares, and casual sex, but it’s also possessed of a warm-hearted centre and is boosted by a raw, fearless performance by Juri that pushes more than a few boundaries to one side – and then comes back and tramples on them.

Vigorous and unnerving, Wetlands is a visceral trawl through the mind and life of a young woman for whom “normal” means rubbing her haemorrhoids on dirty toilet seats and making her own tampons (which she swaps with Corrina). Helen’s sense of propriety is so far out of whack that it’s amazing she has anyone close to her: she has no fear and no appreciation for the feelings of others, and alienates almost everyone in her path. That she remains likeable at all given all this is a testament to the script and Juri’s performance, which is often breathtaking. Juri inhabits the character of Helen with such gusto and disabling charm that the viewer can’t help but be drawn into her world – no matter how luridly disgusting it may be from time to time – and with her cheeky grin and unruly curls, she keeps Helen sympathetic throughout, even during the scene where she coldly berates Corinna for being pregnant. There’s a wealth of unexpected pathos beneath Helen’s ebullient, manipulative, mocking persona, and Juri keeps it all there, just close to the surface, threatening to succumb to it on several occasions but reining it in at the last second.

Helen’s combative relationship with her mother is agonisingly rendered by Juri and Becker, while the sad dependency she feels toward her father is reflected in the quiet, unforced performance of Milberg. Less fulfilling or convincing however is Helen’s relationship with Robin, which seems included as a way of giving Helen a chance at a quieter, more “normal” life. He also seems too much of a nice guy to fall for Helen’s ruinous antics, and Letkowski’s ingenuous portrayal never strays far from being bland and a trifle tame, leaving the viewer wondering what Helen sees in him. Also less convincing is Helen’s consultant, the patronising and insensitive Dr Notz (Selge); he’s the nearest the movie comes to having an authority figure to challenge but the character is too much of a cartoon to be effective as anything else.

With its clutch of spirited performances, Wetlands fares well when it focuses on the dysfunctions and disappointments of family life, and the ways in which people see the nuances of their life as defining them – there’s a great fantasy scene where Helen’s mother is dying and her last thought is about whether or not she’s wearing clean underwear, and which leads to a priceless moment straight out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). It’s also a highly stylised, visually inventive movie that offers a dizzying variety of close ups, point of view shots, flashbacks, and tightly edited scenes and sequences (thanks to Andreas Wodraschke). There’s even an animated sequence near the beginning that sets the tone of much of the fantasy/nightmare elements. All are well-staged and coordinated by Wdendt who shows a keen feel for the material and a determination not to pull any punches when it comes to Helen’s physical and sexual bravado.

By making Helen such an uncompromising character, it’s down to the viewer to decide just how far they want to go with her on her journey, but aside from all the notions of mental illness, sexual ethics and social acceptance, the movie is a surprisingly warm and nurturing experience, its gross-out moments (including the surprise ingredient in a pizza that should have take away sales plummeting) not as randomly added to the storyline as it appears.

Rating: 7/10 – not as morbid or deliberately confrontational as it may seem, Wetlands is all about love and acceptance, and the trials one young woman goes through to attain those; not without its flaws, the movie is still a mesmerising, emotional roller coaster ride, and not for the faint-hearted.

When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (2013)

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When Evening Falls

Original title: Când se lasă seara peste Bucureşti sau Metabolism

D: Corneliu Porumboiu / 85m

Cast: Diana Avramut, Bogdan Dumitrache, Mihaela Sirbu, Alexandru Papadopol

Paul (Dumitrache) is a writer/director making his latest movie. He hasn’t worked with his lead actress, Alina (Avramut) before, but he likes to challenge her over her interpretation and understanding of the script as well as her personal opinions on topics such as shooting on film as opposed to digitally. One day during the movie’s production, Paul fakes a stomach problem and lets his producer, Magda (Sirbu) know that he can’t work; instead he meets up with Alina. They rehearse a scene where Alina’s character gets out of the shower, and as she gets dressed, overhears a conversation involving the male lead character. She and Paul discuss the various reasons for her behaviour during the scene, and try and pin down the various actions that will be involved. Afterwards they have sex.

As the day progresses they have lunch at a Chinese restaurant, and much later, they run into Magda at a hotel where some of the cast are staying. Magda isn’t happy with the male lead’s behaviour from the night before, and she’s also unhappy with Paul because she doesn’t believe his assertion that he’s seen a doctor and had an endoscopy carried out. Afterwards, Paul and Alina continue to block out the shower/dressing scene, going over it time and again in their efforts to fine tune the motivation of Alina’s character. Later, they eat out at another restaurant, where they are joined briefly by Laurentiu (Papadopol), one of Paul’s fellow movie makers. He mentions that Alina has the look of Monica Vitti about her, but Alina doesn’t know who that is. Paul is surprised, and when they leave they talk about the differences between theatre – which is Alina’s professional background – and cinema.

The next morning they meet up before heading for the day’s shooting location. There, Paul gives Magda a copy of the endoscopy exam to watch with a doctor called to the set. Despite some irregularities, the doctor is satisfied, though Magda remains convinced Paul has falsified the recording, though she can’t figure out why. And in a conversation with a makeup lady, Alina reveals its her last day on the production.

When Evening Falls - scene

The so-called Romanian New Wave has been responsible for a number of stark, minimalist movies in the last ten years, most of them poignant, subtle explorations of the effects of Communist rule on the lives of everyday people. Some movies, such as The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu (2005) and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), have found an international audience and been critically applauded. And Porumboiu himself has been feted for his previous movies, including Police, Adjective (2009). Here, he adopts a rigid, formal approach to what is essentially a diffused romantic two-hander, as Paul attempts to both impress and manipulate Alina into giving the performance he’s looking for, and in the process, foster a relationship that, deep down, he knows will only be temporary.

Beneath his rigorous, intellectual demeanour however, Paul is a fraud: pompous, insecure, and insincere. He wants Alina to appear naked in his movie and uses the notion that she’ll be thankful fifty years on that she’ll have a permanent reminder of her youth and beauty. Alina turns the tables on him, though, and shoots down his argument by asking the simple question, what makes him think people will be watching his movies in fifty years’ time? It’s a lovely moment, Paul’s presumptuous ideas punctured without a trace of animosity, and showing just who has the upper hand in their relationship. As the movie progresses, and Paul’s continued attempts to gain some measure of control become less and less effective, Alina reveals more and more of the determination and poise that have been there all along, but which Paul has been too blinkered to notice. The moment when Alina reveals she’s never heard of Antonioni (let alone Monica Vitti) is a wonderful indication of how unconcerned she is by Paul’s cinematic posturing.

Both Avramut and Dumitrache excel in providing well-considered, measured performances, making even the blandest of Paul and Alina’s interactions more intriguing and suggestive than they appear on the surface. Avramut keeps Alina’s face in repose for most of the movie, deflecting Paul’s advances with cool detachment and engaging with him on her own terms. Dumitrache evinces disappointment and dismay, giving Paul the air of a man for whom this isn’t his first experience of being out-manoeuvred by his leading lady. Their relationship is one full of delicate cuts and thrusts, and Porumboiu directs their subtle feints and ripostes with a careful eye for the casual gains and losses inherent in such an unsatisfactory affair.

Unexpectedly absorbing as it is though, the movie does a visual aesthetic that could be off-putting to certain viewers. Porumboiu’s adoption of rigid camerawork and single shot set ups, while keeping things at a distance, actually works to force the audience to pay attention to what’s being said, and the way in which Paul and Alina move around each other, as if in a dance, reaps its own dividends. Particularly effective are the neutral backgrounds Porumboiu places his characters in front of, their non-committal colours and broad expanses reflecting the disinterest Alina and Paul really have in each other. It’s only when Paul and Magda run into each other in the hotel lobby that the environment changes, becoming more decorous and richly detailed. It’s a refreshing change for the viewer, but as Alina leaves them to it and Magda displays her anger, it becomes an indication that Paul’s personality needs an impersonal surrounding in order for him to feel comfortable, and to have a degree of control that reassures him (under Magda’s withering gaze Paul reacts like a chided schoolboy).

Rating: 8/10 – surprisingly emotional beneath its stringent visuals, Where the Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism is deceptively simple and subtly rewarding; less a meditation on the nature of movie making (though with nods in that direction), and more an examination of two people using each other out of convenience, Porumboiu’s movie is an unexpected pleasure.

April Is World Cinema Month

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Foreign cinema

Looking back over the reviews I’ve posted here on thedullwoodexperiment, it’s not exactly a surprise to discover that the majority of movies I’ve reviewed have been English language movies. English is my native language, I have more access to English language movies, and while I can occasionally convince other people to watch a foreign language movie with me there are often too many considerations to be taken into account to make it worthwhile – “what’s it all about?” being the least of them.

But while English language movies will always remain the staple ingredient of my movie diet, I have too much regard and fondness for foreign language movies to ignore them completely (three of my All-Time Top 10 are movies “not in the English language”), and as often as possible I head for the land of the subtitle and allow myself to be transported to parts of the world, and people, I have little knowledge or awareness of. It’s a learning process, as well as a hopefully entertaining one, and to celebrate my love of foreign language movies I’ve decided that April 2015 will be World Cinema Month at thedullwoodexperiment.

This means that each day there’ll be a review of a foreign language movie from a country where English is not the main language. My aim is to find and review thirty different movies from thirty different countries and highlight just how diverse and yet not too dissimilar movie making is around the globe, and to maybe, just maybe, encourage readers and followers of thedullwoodexperiment to take a chance and follow me on this journey of (further) discovery.

I aim to watch a range of movies from a variety of genres and decades, and where appropriate to give some background information about some of the countries chosen and their movie making history. I’m looking forward to this very much, and hope those who follow thedullwoodexperiment, or who may be just occasional visitors, will be prompted themselves to look further afield, and with a bit of luck, find a movie they’ll come to treasure.

P.S. For those of you who are thinking, “What? No English language movies at all?”, there will still be some of those throughout the month. Watch this space!

Tracers (2015)

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Tracers

D: Daniel Benmayor / 94m

Cast: Taylor Lautner, Marie Avgeropoulos, Adam Raynor, Rafi Gavron, Luciano Acuna Jr, Josh Yadon, Johnny Wu, Sam Medina, Amirah Vann, Christian Steel, Wai Ching Ho

Cam (Lautner) has a problem: he owes the Chinese Mafia $15,000 and his work as a bike messenger isn’t earning him enough to meet the repayment schedule that’s been arranged. When his bike is totalled in a collision caused by a female freerunner, Cam doesn’t know what he’s going to do next. But the next day he finds that his “girlfriend” has dropped off a new bike where he works. Cam goes in search of his mystery benefactor and eventually catches up with her. Her name is Nikki (Avgeropoulos) and she’s part of a small group of tracers that includes her brother, Dylan (Gavron), and friends Tate (Acuna Jr) and Jax (Yadon). Cam is attracted to Marie and at first it’s his main reason for hanging out with them, but when his new bike is stolen and he has to move out of the garage space he’s renting because the Chinese Mafia threaten his landlord (Vann) and her young son (Steel), he tells the group that he wants “in” on whatever it is that they do (and which is probably both illegal and lucrative).

Cam eventually meets Miller (Raynor) who tells him that he runs the group as a kind of specialist team, hired to carry out dangerous or high risk “jobs” that are illegal, most of which involve stealing. Cam goes on a job with them that turns out to be a test, which he passes. But the money he’s earning isn’t enough to pay off his debt. At the same time, he and Nikki become closer, even though she is with Miller. They begin seeing each other, though Miller becomes suspicious. When Miller announces a big job, one that will earn each of them around $20,000, Cam sees his way out. But when he’s picked up for the job and Nikki isn’t taking part, he begins to wonder if Miller is setting him up. But the job, a robbery at the “bank” of a notorious Korean gang, goes wrong and in their attempt at escaping, Jax is killed and Cam ends up being arrested. But there is a surprise in store for him, but one that he might be able to turn to his advantage – if he stays alive long enough.

Tracers - scene

Since the first and subsequent Twilight movies, the career of Taylor Lautner hasn’t exactly set cinema screens alight. From being lost in the giant ensemble that was Valentine’s Day (2010), to the entirely risible Abduction (2011) and an uncredited turn in Grown Ups 2 (2013), his career seems to have stalled. On the strength of Tracers it doesn’t look as if it’s going to get any better any time soon.

It’s not that the movie is all bad or that Lautner is – in fact, he’s just about bearable – but it is the kind of movie that the word “disposable” was made for, occasionally exciting but generally quite benign and underwhelming. No one is required to do too much in the way of emoting, and the script seems determined to include as much in the way of bland dialogue as it can, while each character wanders from scene to scene with the vacant approach of someone under hypnosis. Even when Cam and Nikki end up in bed together it’s all Lautner and Avgeropoulos can do to make it seem like they’re attracted to each other.

But despite all this, where the movie does score points is with its parkour scenes, which stay just this side of inventive, and manage to install some much needed energy and thrills into proceedings. It’s also good to see that Lautner has put in his time learning how to participate without looking like an amateur, and if he’s not given anything too dangerous to jump across/down from/over, then it shouldn’t be a surprise. That said, it’s fun to watch his training montage and work out which fails were choreographed and which were originally meant to be outtakes.

With the camera following Cam and the gang from time to time on their parkour routines, the excitement of the chase is never far away, and there’s one sequence which looks set to emulate the foot chase from Point Break (1991), but unfortunately it’s over almost as soon as it’s started – did no one think to strap a helmet-cam on someone at any point? And the twin action sequences toward the end of the movie raise the raise things out of the doldrums of the previous hour. But without these elements – shot with an energetic, well-paced attention to low angles by DoP Nelson Cragg – Tracers is a largely humdrum affair that screams banality from every (other) angle.

Outside of Lautner, the cast are largely forgettable, with the exception of Wu who brings both humour and menace to his role as Tong enforcer Jerry, and Vann who portrays Cam’s landlady with a quiet grace that makes her the most credible character in the whole movie. Benmayor lacks the experience needed to meld the characters and the action together into a unified whole, and directs much of the movie as if from a distance, almost as if he were leaving the cast to direct themselves (and if so, that wasn’t such a good idea either). With his attention wandering – sometimes within a scene – it makes for an uneven, debilitating viewing experience that you won’t want to repeat.

Rating: 4/10 – with parts of the movie feeling padded out and slowed down unnecessarily, Tracers only picks up when its cast fling themselves over and around various rooftops; bordering on vacuous, it’s a movie that could be viewed as the second nail in the coffin of Lautner’s career.

Match (2014)

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Match

D: Stephen Belber / 92m

Cast: Patrick Stewart, Carla Gugino, Matthew Lillard, Jaime Tirelli

Tobi Powell (Stewart) is an aging ballet instructor at Juilliard. He’s a lonely man, given to rejecting offers of friendship from his colleagues, and he lives by himself in an apartment in New York’s Inwood hamlet. Despite this he agrees to give an interview to Lisa Davis (Gugino) who is writing a dissertation on the dance community during the Sixties. Accompanied by her husband, Mike (Lillard), the three meet in Tobi’s favourite Greek diner. Lisa is bright and attentive to Tobi’s flamboyant personality, while Mike is more reserved. The interview continues at Tobi’s apartment, but Mike, who is ostensibly there to support his wife, begins to ask more pointed questions about the Sixties and in particular, Tobi’s sexual liaisons.

Tobi is initially perplexed by Mike and Lisa’s focus on the sexual mores of the period until they mention the name of a dancer he knew called Gloria Rinaldi. Tobi had a brief affair with her in the latter part of 1967, but she gave up a potential career as a dancer to have a child. That child is Mike and he thinks Tobi is his father. Tobi denies being this and tells them both that it would have been impossible as he always wore a condom in those days. Mike doesn’t believe him and becomes aggressive; Tobi asks them both to leave. Instead, Mike refuses and pins down Tobi so he can take a DNA swab from Tobi’s mouth. Having got what he came for, he leaves, but not before Lisa has made it clear that she’s unhappy with the way things have gone.

While Mike heads for a nearby forensics lab where a friend works, Lisa stays with Tobi and they begin to bond over prune pastries and Tobi’s love of knitting. He lets her know he can see the cracks in her marriage to Mike, and Lisa admits Mike has become a different man in recent months as the idea of finding and confronting Tobi has eaten away at him. Moved by Lisa’s honesty, Tobi shows a newspaper clipping he’s kept from when Mike was fifteen and he’d taken part in a fencing competition. He reveals that he knew Gloria was pregnant and that she asked him to be the child’s father but he refused; instead he decided to focus on building his career. And when he saw the newspaper clipping he sent Gloria a sum of money towards Mike’s college fund. But with all this he still can’t be Mike’s father: it’s all too late.

When Mike returns to the apartment, both men are forced to confront some unpleasant truths about each other, while Lisa is left to hope that some degree of reconciliation can be found.

Match - scene

Originally a stage play by writer/director Belber that opened in 2004 (and featured Frank Langella, Jane Adams and Ray Liotta as Tobi, Lisa and Mike respectively), Match still retains the look and feel of a stage play and the type of staging that betrays its theatrical origins. That’s not an entirely bad thing, but it does contribute to several occasions during the narrative where certain developments feel artificial and/or forced.

There’s always a degree of contrivance that accompanies a theatrical adaptation, and Match is no exception. In opening out his play from the constraints of Tobi’s apartment, Belber has chosen to also constrict it (the play ran half an hour longer), and while this possibly helps, there is still a sense that the story gets a little rushed once the trio reach Tobi’s humble abode. Following a number of flamboyant embellishments to his answers, and as many sidetrack comments as he can muster, Tobi is side-swiped by Mike’s bullish demeanour, and while there’s an argument that the movie needs to pick up some speed – and get to the crux of the matter – by this point, it’s done in such a clumsy way that Belber’s careful character building is given the cinematic equivalent of a knee-capping.

From here on until the end of the movie, Match struggles to regain the momentum it has carefully built up, and the characters’ attempts at connecting with each other become more unlikely and more laboured. Tobi and Lisa at one point have a discussion about the pleasures of giving and receiving cunnilingus, as unlikely a conversation as any that two strangers would have within a couple of hours of meeting. They go through Tobi’s collection of self-made knitwear and go up to the roof where Tobi tries to get Lisa to dance. It’s uncomfortably like a courtship, and despite Tobi’s obvious homosexuality, these events still provoke an uncertainty about Belber’s motives in putting these two characters together for so long. And when Mike returns, his confrontation with Tobi is resolved – with admirable speed, but at the expense of a fair degree of credibility.

With the narrative proving unwieldy and uneven, it’s a good thing that Belber has chosen well with his cast. Tobi is the kind of camp, peacockish character that an actor of Stewart’s calibre can bring to life with the twitch of an eyebrow, or the shake of a scarf. He dominates the movie, revelling in Tobi’s arch, semi-pretentious musings, his passion for life at odds with his self-enforced solitude, and still having an insatiable curiosity about the lives of others. It’s a performance that appears effortless, and Stewart is hypnotic throughout, smoothing over the cracks in Belber’s script with a well-timed expression here and a well-considered line reading there. He’s ably supported by Gugino, though Lisa appears largely out of her depth in the situation, two steps away from being entirely subordinate to her husband. When Tobi recognises the problems in their marriage, Gugino shows Lisa to be a woman looking for the answers to questions she hasn’t thought of, and displays the character’s sad-hearted vulnerability with admirable understated precision.

Unfortunately for Lillard, Mike is required to be a kind of aggressive deus ex machina, bulldozing his tight-lipped way through Tobi’s rambling reminiscences and being unnecessarily abusive to Lisa. It’s a dangerously underwritten part, but Lillard manages to salvage some of the pent-up sadness and disappointment Mike has been feeling throughout his life, and he makes it all the more evident when he challenges Tobi’s assertion that Gloria chose her life.

Belber proves to be an erratic director, depending too much on close ups to impart sincere emotion, and never quite knowing where to place the camera in Tobi’s apartment, leading to some odd framing that sees the characters either squeezed into shot and/or suffering a kind of temporary dismemberment. The scene at the forensics lab is dramatically unnecessary (but does remind us that Mike is still part of the story), and the ending, while entirely predictable, is an example of the way in which Belber wants to both punish and celebrate Tobi’s decision all those years ago, but can’t make up his mind which is the more appropriate.

Rating: 6/10 – with strong, committed performances from its main cast, Match maintains the audience’s interest despite some clumsy, ill-considered plot developments and a sense that it’s all a bit too overwrought for it’s own good; the fact that it’s taken ten years to reach the screen may give potential viewers enough of a warning, however, not to expect too much.

Let’s Kill Ward’s Wife (2014)

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Let's Kill Ward's Wife

D: Scott Foley / 82m

Cast: Patrick Wilson, Scott Foley, Donald Faison, James Carpinello, Greg Grunberg, Dagmara Domińczyk, Amy Acker, Marika Domińczyk, Nicolette Sheridan

Ward (Faison) has three close friends: David (Wilson), Tom (Foley), and Ronnie (Carpinello), but since his marriage to Stacey (Dagmara Domińczyk) and the birth of their son, his chances of spending quality time with them has almost reached zero. The reason? Stacey has him browbeaten and henpecked and bullied and reduced to asking permission to see his friends (which he doesn’t get). When a planned Father’s Day trip to the golf course sees four end up as three, his friends start to muse on the idea of killing Stacey and ridding their lives of her forever. But while Tom and Ronnie dismiss the idea other than in principle, screenwriter David begins researching how to kill someone and get away with it.

At a party held at Ward’s house, the friends, along with Tom’s wife, Geena (Acker), and David’s ex-wife, Amanda (Marika Domińczyk), are all together when Tom receives a phone call from actress Robin Peters (Sheridan), whom he has recently interviewed for the magazine he and Ward work for. She flirts with him and he arranges to meet her. But Stacey overhears the conversation and threatens to tell Geena about it. In a fit of pent-up anger, Tom mashes her face into a cake. She comes up for air but slips on a piece of the cake and crashes to the floor, unconscious. She stirs, and Tom panics and strangles her.

He manages to keep the body away from prying eyes until everyone but his friends and Geena and Amanda have gone. He tells them what’s happened, and after the initial shock, they all decide to cover up Stacey’s murder, and then to dispose of the body. Ward is stunned but not unhappy, and goes along with the plan. When it comes to deciding what to do with the body, David reveals several ways in which they could get rid of it, and they decide to dismember it and bury the portions in various different locations. But there is a potential fly in the ointment: Ward’s nosy cop neighbour, Bruce (Grunberg), who senses something is up with Ward, and who keeps an eye on his and his friends’ comings and goings in the run up to the disposing of Stacey’s body.

But when it comes to actually dumping her body, Ronnie has a crisis of conscience that threatens the plan, and Ward is followed by an increasingly suspicious Bruce…

Let's Kill Ward's Wife - scene

There’s a moment in Let’s Kill Ward’s Wife that may well be too much for some viewers, and may prompt them to give the rest of the movie a miss, believing that there are some things – even in a black comedy – that shouldn’t be filmed. The moment in question involves Ward’s full bladder and his dead wife, and it’s the moment in the movie where any connection the audience might have had with Ward and his friends flies out of the window and heads south for the rest of eternity. Up til now, the easy complicity and the joking around have been awkwardly amusing, but here the script – by Foley – aims for the blackest of black comedy and misses by several country miles (there’s another moment later on, with a line of dialogue, that tries the same thing, but it also falls flat). These two moments are indicative of the script’s shortcomings – of which there are many – and why some movies shot on a low budget and in a short period of time… should remain unmade.

It’s true that there’s ambition here, but it’s almost choke-slammed into submission before the movie even begins. At their son’s Christening, Stacey berates Ward for his behaviour in front of all their guests, but he’s done nothing wrong; and while it’s a scene that’s played for maximum awfulness – and to show just how much of a shrew Stacey can be – it’s also a scene that feels too overwrought to be credible. And Stacey remains a shrew right up until she dies, with no attempt to show a different side to her personality, and with an almost blink-and-you’ll-miss-it explanation as to her bullying behaviour. It’s a one-note characterisation and harms the movie in ways that Foley hasn’t considered because he’s more interested in showing the four friends and their camaraderie. But they’re just a bunch of guys who can’t relate to women, and for whom casual misogyny is pretty much a way of life. Ronnie is a would-be Lothario, while Tom is planning to cheat on his wife because it’s easier than telling her she doesn’t turn him on anymore and trying to fix things. And apparent commitment-phone David can devise a plan to dismember and dispose of a dead body but he can’t devise a way in which he can win back his ex-wife. (And if you think these “issues” won’t be resolved by the movie’s end, then you need to think again.)

As the movie stumbles from one unconvincing set up to another – David proves to be a bit of a criminal mastermind, the friends all strip down to their underwear in order to get rid of their clothes… but before they leave Ward’s house, Ronnie fails to take a shovel with him to his burial site and has to use a golf club to dig the hole, Bruce proves to be the worst cop in the world – it soon becomes clear that writer/director Foley hasn’t got a grip on either the material or his cast’s performances. Wilson comes off best by making David gleefully amoral when it matters, and he wears a Cheshire Cat grin throughout. Faison plays Ward as either dazed or confused or panicky, and Carpinello adopts a breezy Brooklynite persona for Ronnie that is too close to parody for comfort. Of the rest of the cast, only Acker makes any kind of impression, but then only briefly before she’s required to turn into an unlikely sexpot. As for Foley, well, let’s just say this isn’t his finest hour.

With too much in the way of fixed camerawork going on, Let’s Kill Ward’s Wife isn’t the most visually arresting of movies, but Foley and DoP Eduardo Barraza do at least keep things moving within the frame, and their reliance on low angle shots occasionally pays off. There’s a score by John Spiker that rarely deviates from being twee and stiffly supportive of the action, and the movie’s brief running time proves to be an unexpected blessing.

Rating: 3/10 – considering the potential of its subject matter, Let’s Kill Ward’s Wife is a ridiculous, self-consciously careless attempt at making a whip-smart blacker-than-black comedy; with no one to root for, or care about, it’s a movie that tries too hard and as a result, fails to deliver.

Mini-Review: Get on Up (2014)

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Get on Up

D: Tate Taylor / 139m

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Lennie James, Fred Melamed, Craig Robinson, Jill Scott, Octavia Spencer, Josh Hopkins, Brandon Smith, Tika Sumpter, Aunjanue Ellis

Get on Up recounts the life and career of James Brown (Boseman), but does so in a painfully non-linear way that sometimes makes it difficult to work out just when a scene is meant to be taking place; often it’s only Brown’s hairstyle that gives the viewer a clue. Opening with a scene set in 1988 where Brown accidentally fired a shotgun in a business property he owned and which lead to his arrest (shown much later in the movie), the script by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth skips back and forth in Brown’s life, from his abandonment by his mother (Davis) and then also his father (James), to his early start in the music business as part of the Famous Flames alongside Bobby Byrd (Ellis). With still further flashbacks and changes in direction, his rise to fame is examined, as well as the lengths he went to to maintain that fame.

What arises from all this is the notion that Brown was an intensely driven man who expected unwavering loyalty from the people around him, and whose talent hid an angry narcissism. He regularly treats people with disdain, particularly supposed best friend Byrd, and seems only to have had a “relationship of equals” with his manager, Ben Bart (Ackroyd), while preferring to be called Mr Brown rather than James by everyone else. It’s a trait that’s returned to again and again throughout the movie, and seems to be the only aspect of Brown’s character and personality that Get on Up is concerned about. And with the continual chopping and changing of the narrative, we learn little else about the man, or what motivates him; this has the effect of leaving the viewer adrift for much of the running time, as the movie veers away from exploring his personality in greater depth or detail.

Get on Up - scene

What does work, thankfully, is Boseman’s towering performance as Brown. The actor captures Brown’s sheer physicality and presence superbly, and although efforts to make him look like the singer in his later years don’t quite work, it’s still an amazing portrayal, fuelled by an energy that fizzes off the screen. On stage, recreating Brown’s movements, Boseman captures perfectly every crazy dance step and pirouette with ease. And he carries that intensity with him away from the stage or studio, giving as complete a performance as he can manage, even when the script isn’t completely supporting him. The same can be said for the likes of Davis, Ackroyd and Ellis, who all make more of their roles than you might expect.

Taylor focuses more on the musical numbers, recreating Brown’s live performances at every opportunity and using these sequences to inject some much needed zing into the movie, and to keep it from stalling. They are the best things in the movie, and the pace picks up every time one comes along. Otherwise, Taylor gives us a somewhat bland retelling of Brown’s life and one that, despite the lengthy running time, still feels rushed. The movie also has too many scenes lacking any resonance or connection to the other scenes around them (one moment of domestic abuse comes out of nowhere and feels included just for the sake of it). With this lack of focus, the movie proves only fitfully rewarding.

Rating: 6/10 – vibrant and alive when it “plays the hits!”, Get on Up falters when it tries to show Brown’s life away from the limelight; with Boseman’s astounding performance rescuing things time after time, it’s a movie that only does partial justice to the life and times of the self-proclaimed Godfather of Soul.

You’re Not You (2014)

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You're Not You

D: George C. Wolfe / 102m

Cast: Hilary Swank, Emmy Rossum, Josh Duhamel, Stephanie Beatriz, Jason Ritter, Julian McMahon, Frances Fisher, Marcia Gay Harden, Ali Larter, Andrea Savage, Loretta Devine, Ernie Hudson, Ed Begley Jr

Kate (Swank) is a successful classical pianist who begins to experience muscle spasms in her hands that affect her playing. Eighteen months later, Kate has been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and needs daily personal care. With her regular caregiver having left, Kate is being looked after by her husband, Evan (Duhamel), but he works full-time and is unable to look after her during the day. Kate makes arrangements to interview a replacement caregiver. The first interviewee is Bec (Rossum), a college student who, despite her lack of experience, makes enough of an impression on Kate to be hired. And despite a first day that goes less than smoothly, and against Evan’s objections, Kate determines that Bec should continue as her caregiver.

While Bec and Kate get used to each other and develop a bond, they also learn that Evan has had a short affair with one of the women in his office. It leads to Kate feeling that she’s holding Evan back; she tries to get Bec to take her to an assisted living facility but Bec refuses to go through with the visit and instead they go to Evan’s office where Kate tells him she wants a divorce. Meanwhile, Bec has relationship problems of her own: she’s been sleeping with one of her tutors, Liam (MacMahon), but while she wants to end things, he doesn’t. And she’s attracted the interest of a young man named Wil (Ritter), who she believes is too nice for her.

Kate and Bec meet another couple where the wife has ALS, Marilyn (Devine) and John (Hudson). Their positive attitude and obvious love for each other give Kate the boost she needs to deal with her illness more effectively and she becomes more outgoing; she even allows Evan to express his feelings and regrets to her. At Xmas, Bec’s parents pay a visit, but a heated conversation between Bec and her mother (Harden) has Kate feeling that she’s holding Bec back from living her own life. Consequently, she fires Bec and arranges for her mother, Gwen (Fisher) to look after her. When Kate’s breathing becomes so bad she ends up hospitalised, Gwen wants her to be put on a ventilator but it’s revealed that Kate has given Bec authority to make any medical decisions relating to treatment or care. Knowing that being on a ventilator isn’t what Kate wants, and against Gwen and Evan’s wishes, she takes Kate home…

You're Not You - scene

Adapted from the novel by Michelle Wildgen, You’re Not You provides pretty much everything you could ever want from a movie trying its very best to make having a debilitating disease seem not so bad. This type of movie – or indeed any type of movie where the protagonist faces a difficult personal battle – always strives to “accentuate the positive”, making the illness/life changing event/seemingly insurmountable problem/horrible setback the trigger that allows the affected character to display resilience and fortitude in the face of such a terrible obstacle. It’s wish fulfilment on an adversarial basis, where triumph of the will trumps, if only temporarily, the problem that can’t be beaten (or which will require a high level of personal sacrifice). And so it proves, with Swank’s ALS sufferer fighting her husband’s selfishness, her dwindling social status, her own growing physical disablement, and a script that coats everything with the rosy glow of female empowerment.

This is a movie that ticks all the boxes. Main character shows stubborn attitude to dealing with illness? Check. Secondary main character shows increased ability to deal with own issues as a result of spending time with main character? Check. Family and friends of main character show complete lack of understanding re: issue main character is dealing with? Check. Main character has “dark moment” where suicide seems like an attractive option? Check. These and more pop up throughout the movie, making it seem like a “greatest hits” disease movie, rather than the heartfelt drama it wants to be.

What doesn’t help as well is that we never really get to know Kate as a person. Sure, she’s an accomplished pianist, and sure she’s bright and funny in the way that accomplished people are, and sure she appears to have reconciled herself to the eventual outcome having ALS dictates, but all this has happened before Bec comes on the scene. Swank is an accomplished actress but even she struggles to make Kate more than a cypher to hang an illness on. And when her speech necessarily worsens, Kate – and Swank – becomes even less of a presence in the movie. Thanks to Jordan Roberts and Shana Feste’s superficial screenplay, there’s no real depth that allows Swank to adequately portray anything like the absolute terror someone must feel as their body slowly but surely shuts down. All we’re left with is a selection of expressions that show patient acceptance or occasional, brief disappointment.

Rossum fares better, but that’s because she has more screen time (and not because Bec’s problems are any more interesting than Kate’s), while Duhamel flits in and out of the narrative as the penitent Evan, looking sheepish and lost for the most part, and blander than a beige throw rug. The rest of the cast come and go without making much of an impact, and as we head toward the inevitable outcome, emotions rise to a level where heartstrings are plucked to predictable effect but still without any depth behind them. Wolfe – making only his second feature – adopts a slightly diffident, low key approach to the material that keeps the audience from getting too involved, and which stops the movie from being as dramatic as it should be. Ultimately, it’s a movie that flirts with the tragedy of Kate’s dilemma without fully embracing it.

Rating: 5/10 – too derivative of every other “disease of the week” movie, You’re Not You struggles to attain any dramatic traction, and wastes the talents of its star; a so-so attempt that is likely to leave viewers wondering how patient they have to be before they’ll be able to connect with the storyline.

Mandrake, the Magician (1939) – Chapter 12: The Reward of Treachery

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Mandrake, the Magician

D: Sam Nelson, Norman Deming / 19m

Cast: Warren Hull, Doris Weston, Al Kikume, Rex Downing, Edward Earle, Forbes Murray, Kenneth MacDonald, Don Beddoe

With the Wasp having used the radium machine to destroy Mandrake’s home – and everyone in it – it’s by some small miracle that no one is seriously harmed, aside from Dr Bennett who is found pinned beneath the rubble. While Webster is charged with taking him to hospital, Raymond heads home. Mandrake searches through the debris and finds a further clue to the Wasp’s identity. He enlists Lothar to help him by retracing their steps from the day before when the Wasp’s lieutenant, Dirk, escaped being followed by them. They find the abandoned store that Dirk entered. Mandrake realises that the rear of the store leads to the Wasp’s hideout, and that Raymond’s store, Bennett’s office, and Webster’s apartment are all close by. He sends Lothar to watch all three while he ventures deeper into the building.

In the same anteroom where Dirk met his untimely end, Mandrake finds himself in danger from the same poison gas that killed the Wasp’s chief henchman. He uses his handkerchief to buy himself some time until he can exit the room. Once out, he finds himself inside the Wasp’s inner sanctum. Mandrake unmasks the Wasp but is held at gunpoint. He explains his reasons for suspecting the Wasp’s real identity, before wrestling the gun away from the master criminal and engaging in a brutal fistfight. The Wasp manages to escape by car but is chased by Mandrake and Lothar, a chase that leads to justice being served and the Wasp’s plan for “world terrorisation” brought to a timely end.

Mandrake 12

And so, we come to the end of twelve weeks of thrills and spills, and endless fight scenes, and car chases, and suspicious behaviour, and blatant sexism, and some very dodgy acting. It’s been an entertaining, if occasionally very silly ride, with cliffhanger endings to each chapter (the life-threatening danger of which is usually ignored at the beginning of the next episode), and such an extreme sense of its own absurdity that it more than makes up for the preposterousness of the script by Messrs. Poland, Dickey and Dandy. It’s been crazy, escapist fun: chock full of holes and about as convincing as the idea of James Corden taking over on The Late Late Show (wait… hang on a minute…).

As Thirties serials go, Mandrake, the Magician has been gloriously stupid at times, and instead of embracing the supernatural skills of its cartoon strip character, has made him into a low-rent magician who’s somehow parlayed his (not-so-) special magic skills into a crimefighting repertoire. And he’s not been the brightest of individuals: in Chapter 12: The Reward of Treachery we see him scanning the ceiling of the Wasp’s anteroom while poison gas seeps up through the floor, and he only notices it as if by accident. Bravo, Mandrake!

But these types of serials are easy – too easy in fact – to criticise and make fun of (see the reviews of all eleven previous episodes), but taken as a whole, this particular serial borders almost on being a guilty pleasure. It has bucket loads of panache and a fair degree of charm, and while it revels in its own foolishness, there’s an acknowledgment that however serious the viewer takes it, it’ll never quite overcome just how idiotic it all seems. From its poor treatment of Betty (rarely has the love interest been given so little to do), to its complete refusal to involve the police in any way, shape or form, Mandrake, the Magician provokes as many smiles as groans, and is a slightly less than perfect way to spend nearly four hours of your time. It’s cheap and cheerful, always fun to watch, and if the identity of the Wasp is never in doubt then so be it – it’s all part of the enjoyment to be had.

Rating: 7/10 – Chapter 12: The Reward of Treachery rounds things off in style, with the long awaited showdown between Mandrake and the Wasp taking centre stage; still displaying a sure sense of its own clumsiness (as do all the other episodes), it makes for a fitting end to a largely inventive, slightly goofy, often farcical serial.

The Homesman (2014)

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Homesman, The

D: Tommy Lee Jones / 122m

Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, Jo Harvey Allen, Barry Corbin, David Dencik, William Fichtner, Evan Jones, Caroline Lagerfelt, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, Jesse Plemons, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld, Meryl Streep

In the Nebraska Territory in the 1850’s, three women – Arabella Sours (Gummer), Theoline Belknap (Otto), and Gro Svendsen (Richter) – fall victim to madness after enduring various hardships. Their pastor, Reverend Dowd (Lithgow), calls upon one of their husbands to take them to Hebron, Iowa where there is a church that will take care of them. With one refusing to do it at all, and the other two proving less than ideal, spinster and homesteader Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) accepts the task, hoping that the “adventure” will help with her own feelings of isolation and depression.

Buddy encounters George Briggs (Jones), and saves him from being hanged for using another man’s home. She persuades him to accompany her and promises him $300 if they make it to Hebron. Briggs agrees but makes for surly company, and challenges Cuddy at every opportunity. However, they come to a mutual understanding, and Briggs’ experience proves invaluable when problems arise, such as one of the women wandering off and being found by a man (Nelson) who wants her for his own, and when they find themselves being watched by Indians.

However, when they find the desecrated grave of an eleven year old girl, Cuddy elects to restore it while Briggs continues on with the women. But Cuddy loses her way and finds herself back at the child’s grave. When she finally catches up with Briggs, she suggests to him that they should marry, but he rejects her offer, telling her – like som many other men before him – that she is too plain and too bossy. Later, she comes to him naked and they have sex. The next morning, Briggs makes a terrible discovery, one that changes the whole nature of the trek to Hebron.

Homesman, The - scene

Achingly stark yet beautiful at the same time, Jones’ adaptation of the novel by Glendon Swarthout, The Homesman, is a melancholic, richly detailed portrait of the hardships of frontier life in the 1850’s, and the different ways in which loneliness can affect even the strongest and most determined of people. Through the journey that Cuddy, Briggs and the three women make, the movie delves into notions of longing, despair, loss and, more curiously, faith (though to a lesser degree than the others). It’s a confident, expertly constructed and devised movie, and it features a handful of strong, finely detailed performances – from Jones, Swank, Streep and Lithgow – and also features some stunning photography courtesy of Rodrigo Prieto, but ultimately it’s a movie that plays too much to convention.

Part of the problem lies in the relationship between Briggs and Cuddy, two people for whom loneliness has become their lives. But where Briggs is comfortable in being alone, Cuddy isn’t, and strives to match herself with someone (at the beginning of the movie it’s another homesteader (Evan Jones), but her desperation is alienating). When she and Briggs meet it’s inevitable that she will offer him the same proposal of marriage it seems she’s made to everyone else. That Briggs will refuse her is another inevitability, and one that robs the moment of any dramatic tension; it also makes Cuddy’s willingness to strip naked and sleep with him too desperate (that Briggs would agree to this approach is unsurprising). What follows is robbed of any potency by Jones’ not allowing any build up to it – it’s presented so matter-of-factly that it makes Cuddy’s importance to the narrative seem irrelevant.

And so the focus remains on Briggs, a curmudgeonly old fox who lacks several degrees of decency, and who develops an unlikely sense of responsibility to the three madwomen (and purely, it seems, because they’ll follow him wherever he goes, a development that’s never really explained). He’s otherwise a selfish, mean-spirited man with no measure of social conscience, but who seems to gain said social conscience without a second thought, and who tries to echo Cuddy’s desperate need to fit in and be accepted by making a similar (uncomfortable) proposal to Steinfeld’s waitress. In Jones’s hands, he’s meant to be a sympathetic character overall, but his personality and way with others is too wayward to afford consistency, and Briggs’ initial roguishness gives way to behaving in whichever way the script needs him to.

With Jones the actor hamstrung by Jones the co-writer – along with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver – it’s left to Jones the director to save the day. If there’s one aspect that he’s very, very good at, it’s in the look of his movies. As in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), Jones’ mastery of the frame is simply superb, each shot crafted with a care and attention to light and shade and detail that is consistently impressive. His use of perspective is also finely attuned, the various landscape shots peppered throughout the movie displaying a level of natural beauty married to the width and depth of the image that is often breathtaking. And it’s no different in medium or close up shots: Jones displays such a sure knowledge of what’s he doing and how he’s presenting it that each scene has a rare quality to it, one that few other directors would be able to reproduce.

The movie moves along at a measured pace that gives the cast adequate time to make an impression, and which shows Jones to be generous when sharing the screen with someone else. He gives supporting actors such as Spader, Fichtner and Steinfeld plenty of room to impress, and stands well back to let them do their thing. Though the script gives them little to do except stare off into the distance, Gummer, Otto and Richter, are effective as the three women driven mad by circumstance and hardship (particularly Richter, who has a chilling and very disturbing scene with a sowing needle). They don’t quite achieve the prominence the story allows them at the beginning, but all three characters are convincingly portrayed throughout.

There are casual nods to the sexism of the times, and the grim nature of trying to survive in what was an often harsh, unforgiving environment is well depicted. The final twenty minutes serve more as a coda than a final act, and some viewers may feel this section is a little off-centre as a result, as the three madwomen arrive at their destination and Streep’s affable pastor’s wife takes centre stage (her performance is a reminder, if any were needed, of just how good an actress she is). And the final scene itself ends the movie on an awkward, offhand note that smacks of contrivance rather than a satisfying end to the story.

Rating: 7/10 – absorbing if uneven, The Homesman scores highly because of Jones’ ability as a director and his often glorious use of the camera; with its story often straying off into some unwanted dead ends, this journey is only occasionally involving, and only occasionally matches the commitment made by its cast.

Amira & Sam (2014)

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Amira & Sam

D: Sean Mullin / 90m

Cast: Martin Starr, Dina Shihabi, Paul Wesley, Laith Nakli, David Rasche, Ross Marquand, Taylor Wilcox

Former Green Beret Sam (Starr), fresh out of the army, visits an old friend, Bassam (Nakli), who was an interpreter during Sam’s time in Iraq. He is there to repay a debt, and in the process he meets Bassam’s niece, Amira (Shihabi). However, she is rude and unwelcoming to him as her brother was also an interpreter, and he was killed by friendly fire.

Having lost his job, Sam visits his cousin Charlie (Wesley) for help. Charlie is a hedge fund manager, and Sam’s visit prompts him to ask Sam to help him land a potential investor he’s had trouble convincing to come on board. In exchange for Sam’s help, Charlie agrees to pay him $50,000; he also gives him the keys to his father’s boat, which Charlie has inherited but doesn’t use. Glad of the support, Sam agrees to help out. Meanwhile, Amira is stopped by a police officer while selling fake DVDs on the street; a check on her I.D. reveals she is in the country illegally. She runs away from the police officer and heads back to her uncle’s. Stuck with a job that requires him to be away for a few days, he contacts Sam and asks him to look after Amira until he gets back.

Sam agrees but Amira is less than happy about everything. She reluctantly allows Sam to take her to his apartment. He meets Charlie’s prospective investor, a Vietnam veteran called Jack (Rasche), and impresses him so much that Jack increases his investment beyond what Charlie was expecting. Feeling good about things, Sam takes Amira out on the boat and their relationship thaws as a result. Soon after, Charlie invites Sam to his engagement party, but asks him if he can wear his Army dress uniform; Sam agrees though he’s a little reluctant. He takes Amira with him but some of Charlie’s colleagues prove too aggressively racist toward her and an altercation ensues, during which Amira accidentally hits Charlie’s fiancé, Claire (Wilcox). She presses charges and Amira is arrested. As a result, she has only twenty-four hours before she’ll be deported back to Iraq – and there’s nothing Sam or Bassam can do…

Amira & Sam - scene

An unusual mix of interracial romance and army veteran adjusting to “normal” life dramatics, Amira & Sam is an absorbing combination of sub-genres that overcomes a somewhat staid, foreseeable approach to Sam’s troubles with his cousin, and scores heavily when portraying Amira and Sam’s growing relationship. It doesn’t try to be clever, but it does get its points across with a winning charm, and thanks to the well thought out script by writer/director Mullin, and the performances of the two leads, is a pleasure to watch.

There’s plenty to enjoy, from Sam’s horrible attempt at doing a stand up gig, to his letting Amira steer the boat (and then jumping overboard), to the awkward conversation he has with Jack about the realities of post-Army life. The movie is peppered with scenes that work because of the care and attention given to the characters, with even Charlie’s duplicitous nature proving less stereotypical than expected. And Mullin shows a complete command of the material, keeping it grounded and realistic, letting the narrative unfold at a steady, convincing pace, and placing the emotional lives of Amira and Sam at the forefront.

As the “unlikely” couple, Starr and Shihabi display a definite chemistry, their scenes together evincing a surety and a confidence that not only makes their relationship all the more credible, but all the more engaging as well. As these two very different people discover a common ground and develop their feelings for each other they become a couple for whom the word “cute” seems entirely appropriate. Mullin captures the first flush of romance with ease, and in the hands of his leads, that burgeoning romance is handled with aplomb. Starr has had a varied career in front of the camera, mostly as a supporting actor, but here he takes on his first lead role and shows a range and a capability that should have been exploited a long time ago. His deadpan looks and unhurried style suits Sam perfectly, making him feel like someone we might know in our own lives. Shihabi is equally as good, investing Amira with a tenacious yet sensitive quality that proves a match for Starr’s interpretation of Sam, and which makes their romance all the more credible. The bond they develop, and their need for each other, is never in doubt.

Less effective are the scenes designed to add some secondary drama to the proceedings, such as Charlie’s investigation by the SEC which feels entirely predictable, and the racial outbursts at the engagement party, which have been a longtime coming and which feel like the movie is ticking a box. And yet the idea of Sam being exploited by Charlie, of his Army veteran status being used to win over investors, is dealt with succinctly and the point is made with a minimum of fuss or attention. Likewise, the notion that Sam can be a funny guy in front of an audience when he’s clearly more of a storyteller, a feature of his personality that is explored casually but with a great deal of efficiency, is also a plus. Mullin proves how capable and subtle he can be in these scenes, and again, is helped immeasurably by his cast.

With a pleasing visual approach courtesy of DoP Daniel Vecchione, linked to Julian Robinson’s astute editing, the movie looks good and has a bright shine to it that reflects and enhances the romantic aspects while never downplaying the reality of Amira’s predicament or Sam’s need to “assimilate” back into society. It’s an enjoyable movie from start to finish, confidently assembled and memorable enough to warrant a second or third viewing.

Rating: 8/10 – surprising in places and yet overly familiar in others, Amira & Sam is a confident mix of comedy, drama and romance that features two first class lead performances; any flaws the movie may have are more than compensated for by the sheer goodwill the movie generates throughout.

The Road Within (2014)

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Microsoft Word - RDW_1SHT_F

D: Gren Wells / 100m

Cast: Robert Sheehan, Dev Patel, Zoë Kravitz, Robert Patrick, Kyra Sedgwick, Ali Hills

Following the death of his mother, Vincent (Sheehan) is persuaded by his estranged father, Robert (Patrick), to attend an experimental treatment centre for his Tourette’s. After meeting with the head of the centre, Dr Rose (Sedgwick), Vincent is taken to the room where he’ll be staying, and meets OCD sufferer, Alex (Patel). Alex is horrified at having a roommate and does what he can to get Vincent moved to another room but his plans fail. Vincent also meets Marie (Kravitz), who is there because she suffers from anorexia (and who almost died a few months before).

Vincent and Marie strike up a friendship, but when he gets into trouble with Dr Rose, it’s she who offers an unexpected solution: take Dr Rose’s car and go wherever he wants to go. Vincent decides on the ocean so that he can scatter his mother’s ashes. He and Marie take off one night, but not without first having to abduct Alex and take him with them (he was going to inform on them to Dr Rose). When their absence is discovered, Dr Rose contacts Vincent’s father and tells him what’s happened. Despite being a politician in the middle of an election campaign, Robert agrees to come and help find his son.

He and Dr Rose struggle to get along as they pursue the runaways, while Vincent, Marie and Alex begin to forge stronger relationships. When Robert and Dr Rose catch up with them at a lake, they manage to get away. As they travel to the ocean they begin to learn to trust each other, and Vincent and Marie grow closer, while Robert, through talking about his son to Dr Rose, begins to realise that he’s not been the kind of father that Vincent needed while he was growing up. Meanwhile, Vincent and Marie’s relationship becomes intimate, but this angers Alex, who has seen her manipulate other patients at the centre in the same way. He takes off and leaves them stranded.

They catch up with him at the next town, and there is a violent confrontation, but it leads to a reconciliation, and they carry on to the ocean. But when they get there, Marie has a relapse and is taken to hospital, leaving Vincent to make the hardest decision of his life so far.

Road Within, The - scene

A dramatic comedy – or comic drama, whichever you prefer – The Road Within is an enjoyable, if formulaic, road movie that pitches itself somewhere to the left of inspirational, and partly to the right of sentimental. It’s a feelgood movie about people who can’t always, if ever, feel good about themselves, and as such has an air of wish fulfilment about it that it never quite shakes off. Alex’s OCD is a good case in point: he has to open and close doors four times before going through them but this comes and goes at the script’s discretion, and when he doesn’t do it it’s ignored rather than celebrated. But in the end, the movie is intelligent enough not to administer any miracle cures to Vincent, Marie or Alex, just some appropriate development in the way they deal with their conditions.

First-time director Wells, working from her own script, creates a narrative that most viewers will recognise from other road movies, and while sometimes familiarity can cause viewers to react in a blasé, seen-it-all-before way, here the journey is entirely important for the way in which it makes the characters interact. If the movie had been set entirely at the centre, then the metaphor of travelling toward an understanding of themselves would have been negated. And sometimes, comfort zones have to be left behind if we’re going to make any progress. These are obvious points to make, but the movie makes them with a sincerity and a sense of humour that allows the viewer to invest in the characters and care about what happens to them.

Thanks to the cast’s clever and often intuitive performances, the characters of Vincent, Marie and Alex never seem like the caricatures they could so easily have turned out to be. Vincent lives in the shadow of his father’s disappointment in having a son who causes him embarrassment, while Marie’s rebellious nature hides a young woman’s need for approbation despite how her illness makes her feel about herself. And Alex wants to be normal even though he knows at the same time that the likelihood of that ever happening is so minimal as to be impossible. Sheehan displays a vulnerable side to Vincent’s character that makes him instantly likeable, but there’s a deeply angry side to him that Sheehan exhibits with equal effectiveness, both aspects given due weight throughout. Kravitz gives Marie a bruised quality that highlights the suffering she’s endured and makes her the most damaged of the trio; it’s a surprisingly delicate performance, and one that keeps the viewer’s attention on her in any scene she’s in.

Patel, however, operates at the opposite end of the spectrum to Kravitz, portraying Alex as a screaming, panic-driven doomsayer – every pothole he hits while driving is someone he’s run over, like a pregnant woman – and providing someone for Vincent and Marie to play tricks on. It’s a confident performance, strident at times, but as with Sheehan and Kravitz, he portrays the character’s burden with sincerity and no small amount of sympathy. (This helps offset the several occasions when his tantrums make the viewer want to reach through the screen and give him a good slap – or wish the other characters would.)

The movie is attractive to watch, with beautiful location work at Yosemite National Park  proving a highlight, and the various themes of longing, connection and displacement given pertinent, if sometimes too gentle, attention, and Wells’ direction keeps the focus on the main characters’ often unsteady but quietly determined steps toward making their lives better, even if it’s just in small ways. This keeps the movie grounded and credible, and if the way in which Robert opens up to Dr Rose near the movie’s end seems a little too predictable or unlikely, then it’s a small misstep in an otherwise very enjoyable production.

Rating: 8/10 – not without some minor flaws – but none that keep the movie from being entertaining – The Road Within takes three people with serious illnesses and refuses to use those illnesses to define them; blackly comic in places – Vincent’s outburst at his mother’s funeral sets the tone – and with its heart in the right place, this is a movie that rewards the viewer on a small scale, but very effectively nevertheless.

Cymbeline (2014)

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Cymbeline

D: Michael Almereyda / 98m

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Ed Harris, Milla Jovovich, John Leguizamo, Penn Badgley, Dakota Johnson, Anton Yelchin, Peter Gerety, Kevin Corrigan, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Delroy Lindo, James Ransone, Spencer Treat Clark, Harley Ware, Bill Pullman

Imogen (Johnson) and Posthumus (Badgley) are young lovers who have married in secret and exchanged gifts of a ring (for Posthumus) and a bracelet (for Imogen). Their marriage is not to the liking of Imogen’s father, biker king Cymbeline (Harris). He banishes Posthumus, and so paves the way for his second wife, the Queen (Jovovich) to advance her own son, Cloten (Yelchin) as Imogen’s husband, in an attempt to secure control of the biker gang when Cymbeline is dead. Aided by his servant, Pisanio (Leguizamo), Posthumus goes to stay with his friend Philario (Ransone). There he meets Iachomo (Hawke) who wagers that he can seduce Imogen to prove that she isn’t as virtuous as Posthumus believes. The wager accepted, Iachomo visits Imogen and when a direct assault on her virtue backfires, he portrays it as a test of her commitment to Posthumus – which she accepts. Before he leaves he asks her to look after an item for him overnight, which she also agrees to.

The item is a chest, one that Iachomo has hidden himself inside. While Imogen sleeps he climbs out of the chest and puts together evidence that he has slept with her. He takes this evidence back to Posthumus who, enraged by Imogen’s seeming duplicity, sends two letters: one to Imogen asking her to meet him at Milford Haven, the other to Pisanio asking him to take her there and when they arrive, to kill her. Pisanio, however, is unable to carry out his order and shows Imogen his letter. He has her disguise herself as a boy and tells her to travel on to Milford Haven; he also gives her what he believes to be a remedy for travel sickness that he has taken from the Queen, but which is a potion that will mimic death.

Meanwhile, Cloten discovers Posthumus’ plan to meet Imogen and heads to Milford Haven himself with the intention of killing Posthumus and bringing Imogen back to marry him. Imogen has reached the town already and fallen in with Belarius (Lindo) and his two “sons” Guiderius (Clark) and Arviragus (Ware). She tells them her name is Fidele. While they are out hunting, they encounter Cloten who insults and then threatens Guiderius, who in turn kills him and then beheads him. Imogen, feeling unwell, takes the remedy and becomes as dead. Belarius decides to bury her with Cloten’s body; when she wakes she believes Cloten to be Posthumus as he is wearing similar clothes. With both she and Posthumus believing themselves lost to each other, an impending war between Cymbeline’s gang and the Rome police – to whom they pay a tribute – proves to be the unlikely cause of their reconciliation.

Cymbeline - scene

In adapting the play by William Shakespeare, writer/director Almereyda has done two things very well, and two things not so well. The first is to employ an incredibly talented cast, all of whom are able to take Shakespeare’s lines and make them sound as natural as modern day speech, fully understandable and with clear purpose in their meaning. The likes of Hawke – reuniting with Almereyda for the first time since Hamlet (2000) – Harris, Leguizamo and Lindo provide convincing interpretations of the prose and help the casual viewer through some of the more confusing aspects of the plot (mistaken identities are key here). The second is to condense the play’s final third into a more manageable “wrapping up” of things, even if it all feels rushed and at the expense of the movie’s previously more measured pace.

But where Almereyda gets those things absolutely right, where he gets it absolutely wrong proves too damaging for the movie to recover from. The first is to set the action in a modern day setting, mostly Brooklyn, and to flavour the movie as if it were a version of Shakespeare meets Sons of Anarchy. This backdrop, given that it should enhance the drama – the Queen persuades Cymbeline to back out of his arrangement with the Rome police in the hope that war between them will see him dead – instead seems ponderous and ill-considered, more of a budgetary consideration than a narrative one. It leads to some incongruous moments, such as Cloten pushing a motorbike along a gravel road, Imogen choosing her nom-de-plume thanks to a T-shirt worn by Guiderius, and Posthumus getting about on a skateboard. While some of these tweaks may have appeared sound in the pre-production phase, on screen they’re not as effective as was probably hoped for.

The second problem is with Almereyda’s direction itself. The movie plods along from scene to scene with little energy or flair displayed, and struggles to provide any momentum to take the audience with it. There’s a signal lack of connection between scenes that makes for a stop/start experience, the narrative appearing jumbled and ill at ease with itself, like a story that needs more cohesion. With so many subplots and supporting characters, Cymbeline looks and feels like a movie that can’t quite get a grip on what it’s trying to say, or even how to say it. Again, if it weren’t for the very talented cast, the movie would founder even more, and the audience would be left adrift, waiting – unsuccessfully – for Almereyda to place his authority on the material and make it work with more style and verve.

Generally regarded as one of Shakespeare’s weaker plays (written at a time when he seemed to be bored with them), Cymbeline is a strange choice for a movie adaptation, its tale of thwarted lovers and political machinations proving not quite as amenable to the translation as might be expected. It also looks very much as if it were shot too quickly – some of the set ups look rushed or improvised. Still, it’s a brave choice by Almereyda, but if he has any plans to adapt any more of Shakespeare’s works, he might be better off securing a bigger budget, and concentrating on the script rather than directing. After all, “the play’s the thing…”

Rating: 5/10 – a dour, unimpressive adaptation, Cymbeline is rescued by a set of strong performances and an astute conflation of the plot; not as engrossing as it should have been, but not as awful as the early scenes seem to indicate.

Mandrake, the Magician (1939) – Chapter 11: At the Stroke of Eight

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Mandrake, the Magician

D: Sam Nelson, Norman Deming / 19m

Cast: Warren Hull, Doris Weston, Al Kikume, Rex Downing, Edward Earle, Forbes Murray, Kenneth MacDonald, Don Beddoe, John Tyrrell

Trapped in the east wing of the Green Valley Rest Home, Mandrake and Betty manage to survive the Wasp’s attempt to kill them. The Wasp orders his men to abandon the place and in the ensuing confusion, Mandrake and Betty are able to get out. There they are met by Raymond, who tells them he was knocked out by some of the Wasp’s men, and Webster, who tells them he was captured but managed to escape. They find Bennett in the rubble, shaken up but alive. Mandrake and Webster go back into the rest home where they discover a tunnel that leads away from the home and out to the highway; there Mandrake finds a clue: a receipt from a car hire company.

At his home, and with everyone assembled, including Professor Houston who has been working on a machine that will be able to nullify the effects of the radium machine that the Wasp has, Mandrake tells them about the receipt, and asks them all to return at eight o’clock that night. He and Lothar head for the car hire place and see Dirk and some of the Wasp’s men drive away. They follow but Dirk manages to avoid them, and he meets up with the Wasp at his secret hideaway in the rear of an abandoned store. The Wasp reveals his plan to use the radium machine to destroy Mandrake’s home at eight o’clock, and to be there when it happens. Then he traps Dirk in a room that he floods with gas, and kills him.

At Mandrake’s home, eight o’clock draws near. He and Professor Houston reveal the nullifier, which causes Bennett, Webster and Raymond to each display an uncomfortable reaction. But as the Professor goes to place the final component he drops it onto the floor. As everyone searches for it, the radium machine – set on a timer – begins to activate, and the whole house collapses around everyone.

Mandrake 11

With its focus on making as many of its characters look as likely to be the Wasp as ever before – even Professor Houston is made to look suspicious – Chapter 11: At the Stroke of Eight is easily the best episode so far as the writers aim to wind things up with as much brio as possible. The early scenes outside the rest home have a brisk feel about them as each character’s explanation for being at the home is considered, and Mandrake begins to suspect the Wasp may be someone he knows. But he tells everyone his plans, and puts himself in harm’s way yet again (he’s clever, but now and again you have to wonder…).

But even though this episode has a lot going for it – not least the comical ways in which each character acts suspiciously – there’s still the usual number of odd moments that don’t make sense or challenge credibility. When the Wasp kills Dirk it’s in the same ante-room that he came through before meeting his boss, yet he enters the room through an entirely different door than the one before. As the radium machine begins to do its work, Betty and Tommy come running into the room and she shouts “The lights are off upstairs!” as if it was a major crisis (Weston also delivers the line to the floor for some reason). And even though the tunnel from the rest home leads out to the highway, it’s still not too far away for Raymond and Bennett to see Mandrake and Webster when they emerge from it.

With only the one brief fight scene – so brief that Kikume’s stunt “double” isn’t required – this chapter concentrates more on the narrative and proves even more enthralling for doing so. With one last chapter remaining, and the identity of the Wasp to be revealed at last, this episode sees the serial coming into its own at last after so many chapters that only provided filler.

Rating: 7/10 – it’s fair to say that the excitement is mounting, and Chapter 11: At the Stroke of Eight delivers the promise of an equally exciting conclusion to matters; a great precursor to Chapter 12 but an entertaining episode in its own right as well.

The Better Angels (2014)

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Better Angels, The

D: A.J. Edwards / 95m

Cast: Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger, Braydon Denney, Brit Marling, Wes Bentley, Cameron  Mitchell Williams, McKenzie Blankenship

Indiana, 1817. Eight year old Abe Lincoln (Denney) lives with his father Tom (Clarke), mother Nancy (Marling), and younger sister Sarah (Blankenship) in an area of “unbroken forest”. They are joined by Nancy’s orphaned cousin, Dennis Hanks (Williams) who becomes an older brother to Abe. Abe’s father works as a farmer and a carpenter; he’s a taciturn man who doesn’t drink alcohol, gamble or curse, but he is a harsh disciplinarian, and Abe often finds himself being punished for some misbehaviour or minor infraction.

Abe has a better relationship with his mother, who is kind-hearted and supportive of his attempts to educate himself. She is a nurturing influence, one he thrives under, and the time he spends with her helps offset the onerous chores he has to do on the farm. But Abe is left adrift when Nancy contracts milk sickness and dies. His father tries to carry on but it doesn’t last long. He leaves Abe, Sarah and Dennis to manage the farm while he goes off to find another wife. When his father returns, it is with a new bride, Sarah “Sally” Bush Johnston (Kruger), a widow from Kentucky who has three children of her own. In her own way she proves as supportive and nurturing of Abe as Nancy was, and despite some initial reservations, Abe warms to her.

As their relationship deepens and strengthens, Abe’s relationship with his father remains the same, with an added emphasis on Abe’s “toughening up”. It’s around this time that Abe’s honesty becomes more noticeable (even if it leads to his being caned by his father), and his education receives a boost from the attention of local schoolteacher Mr Crawford (Bentley). Crawford seeks Tom’s permission to provide Abe with extra tutoring; as he tells Sally, Abe won’t be a backwoodsman for very much longer. Tom agrees, and Abe is set on the path to securing his future.

Better Angels, The - scene

An idyllic looking reminiscence on the early life of Abraham Lincoln, The Better Angels is a deliberately slow-paced meditation on the influences that helped the young Lincoln grow up to be the man he became. Taking as its focus the period of his life when he lost and gained a mother, the movie is a studied, thoughtful examination of the trials and joys of growing up in a wooded wilderness.

Shot in glorious, lustrous black and white, the movie paints a compelling portrait of a time and a place where life was certainly difficult, and sometimes harsh: the family’s cows get sick and die from eating poisonous weeds, and Nancy dies as a result of drinking their infected milk. When Tom Lincoln goes off to find a wife, it seems uncaring and thoughtless to leave his children and Dennis to cope until he returns, but this was part and parcel of life in America during that period, where a normal childhood had to be grabbed whenever possible. It’s to Edwards’ credit that he’s able to show that the young Lincoln was able to be a child as well as a farm labourer, and that he was able to find beauty in his surroundings, both in his two mothers and via the ever-changing natural habitat he was a part of.

Abe’s relationships with Nancy and Sarah are the heart and soul of the movie, delicate and affectionate and heartfelt, with both Marling and Kruger providing very different, yet very intuitive performances. Marling behaves almost like a wood nymph, her love of nature and the way in which she embraces it allowing Abe’s mind to embrace it too. Kruger is equally effective, imbuing Sarah with a quiet determination that Abe will realise his full potential, and unsupportive of her new husband’s strict approach to parenting. (It could be argued that without these two women in his life at such a formative time, then Abraham Lincoln’s future would have been entirely different.) As his stern, reticent father, Clarke is a stoic figure seemingly bereft of feeling and only able to connect with his son when correcting him. Indeed, the nearest he gets to showing any tenderness is when he’s teaching Abe how to wrestle, but it’s an awkward tenderness and borders on uncomfortable – for both of them.

The young Abe is played with quiet composure and assurance by Denney (making his movie debut), and he’s a great find, matching his adult co-stars for sincerity and skill. He has a natural ability that allows the viewer to engage and understand Abe instantly. Nancy mentions at one point that Abe is asking her questions she can’t answer; looking at Denney you can believe it. He’s also effective in scenes where he and his mothers bond through learning and their mutual appreciation of nature, his expressions of curiosity and understanding perfectly shaped and naturalistic. It’s a tremendous performance, and anchors the movie superbly.

With a quartet of understated yet superb performances at its centre, The Better Angels‘ glowing black and white cinematography emphasises the poetry and the beauty of the seasons, and is exhilarating to experience. Edwards’ use of shade and light, executed with tremendous precision by DoP Matthew J. Lloyd, is hugely impressive, immersing the viewer in shots of extraordinary seductiveness. Rarely has unspoilt countryside looked so alluring or captivating, and rarely has it looked so beautiful as it does here, in black and white. With every scene captured with breathtaking attention to period detail and highlighted by some of the most exquisite framing and composition seen in recent years, the movie is a visual treat par excellence.

Rating: 9/10 – some viewers may bemoan the slow pace and emphasis on recurring shots of natural beauty, but The Better Angels presents a fully realised world that is immersive and often deeply profound; with Edwards in full control of both the script and the world he’s recreating, this is a movie that resonates long after it’s been seen.

X/Y (2014)

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X:Y

D: Ryan Piers Williams / 83m

Cast: America Ferrera, Ryan Piers Williams, Melonie Diaz, Jon Paul Phillips, Amber Tamblyn, Dree Hemingway, David Harbour, Common, Adam Rapp, Maria Dizzia, Danny Deferrari, Sue Jean Kim

Mark (Williams) and Silvia (Ferrera) are unhappy with their relationship, with both of them feeling unappreciated, and with both of them failing to communicate with each other. These issues come to a head when Silvia reveals she’s slept with someone else called Jason (Common). Mark takes some of his stuff and moves in with his friend Jake (Phillips). While he tries to work out what to do next, he also tries to get a movie script he’s written off the ground via his agent, Todd (Harbour).

Elsewhere that morning, one of Silvia’s friends, Jen (Diaz) is waking up in the bed of a stranger she met the night before. She leaves before he wakes up, but leaves a bag behind so she has an excuse to see him again. At a coffee shop she leaves her number for the guy behind the counter, Phil (Deferrer). She meets Silvia and they talk about Mark leaving, but when Jen tells Silvia she “fucked up”, Silvia gets defensive and deliberately upsets Jen to the point where Jen tells her to go. Later, Jen goes back to retrieve her bag only to find the man she met is married.

Mark’s friend, Jake, meanwhile, is trying his best to get over the break up of a five year relationship. He has meaningless sex with a woman in the club where he DJ’s, but can’t connect with a woman, Claudia (Hemingway), he meets at a photo shoot and who is clearly attracted to him. He spies on his ex-girlfriend and uses his emotions to fuel the artwork he paints. Silvia’s separation from Mark means more time to have sex with Jason but her work begins to suffer as a result, and she begins to realise that she and Mark splitting up hasn’t been for the best after all.

X:Y - scene

While not pushing any boundaries at all in its depiction of the lives of four fairly messed up individuals, X/Y does have an honest approach to the material that helps carry it through some of the more dull and unsurprising stretches. It’s another movie that reminds us that people in relationships are notoriously bad at talking to each other, and that they only really confess their feelings to their friends: Mark and Silvia tell Jake and Jen respectively how they feel about each other, but somehow find it too difficult when in the same room together.

While this is standard operating procedure for most romantic dramas, the problem with this type of movie is how much depth the characters’ problems have. Here, Mark and Silvia have been together for six years but seem to have reached a point where they’re making each other unhappy but without understanding why. Unfortunately, over the course of the movie, the audience doesn’t find out either. Mark admits at one point that he doesn’t always know what he wants, and there are times when the multi-character set up means the movie doesn’t either. While Mark and Silvia’s relationship takes up most of the narrative, the time spent with Jen and Jake offers the viewer nothing more than two people who are struggling not to connect. Both characters are adrift, grabbing illusory notions of love and emotional attachment where none is present. Jen’s sadness at being alone prompts her to binge shop despite being unemployed; Jake moves from one pursuit to another in an attempt to outrun his sadness at being alone. But Mark and Silvia have each other, even though they’re apart, and while Jen and Jake’s problems add some range to the material, they’re vignettes that don’t add any depth to the basic storyline.

With Mark and Silvia’s troubles bookending the movie, and its centre proving something of a distraction, it’s left to the performances to rescue things. Real-life couple Ferrera and Williams are entirely credible as a couple too entrenched in their own differences to see how unimportant they are. Ferrera brings a rawness to her scenes with Williams that makes Silvia more sympathetic than she appears, her judgmental attitude giving way as the movie progresses to a more ambivalent awareness of how she’s behaved, and finally to a better understanding. As Mark, Williams brings less to the table, but that’s more to do with the way the character is written: he’s the typical male who thinks everything is okay until he finds out it isn’t… and then he’s completely bewildered. Williams does a good job in getting that across while making Mark’s initial need to keep his distance entirely understandable; he wants his relationship to work but not at the expense of his pride.

As Jen and Jake, Diaz and Phillips acquit themselves equally well, with Diaz proving again why she’s one of the most intuitive actresses working today. As the seemingly vapid (but clued up) Jen she almost steals the movie in terms of performance. When she confronts her one night stand and his wife, it’s a small masterpiece of injured pride and smiling revenge, and the movie benefits from her involvement (and seems somehow less of a piece after her segment is over). Phillips has the most challenging role, keeping Jake’s deep-rooted insecurities and emotional instability from becoming too much for the audience to believe in, but he juggles the various dilemmas Jake has to face with equanimity and quiet inspiration.

All told, X/Y is a valiant effort but somehow it doesn’t quite hit the mark, leaving the viewer with the sense that, not only has this been done before, but it’s probably been done in a better fashion and with more to say. Williams directs with an acceptable, if unremarkable, visual style that improves when he uses close ups to highlight the emotional tension in a scene, and he often lingers on characters’ faces to good effect, their feelings allowed full expression without any chance of doubtful interpretation. The soundtrack features a selection of indie songs that come and go without making much of an impression, and while this isn’t unusual – so many soundtracks nowadays seem like a contractual obligation than a benefit to the movie they’re in – they do distract from the overall feel that Williams is aiming for.

Rating: 5/10 – feeling like a collection of short films stitched together, X/Y lacks the drive and energy needed to make its audience care about its characters and their problems; not without its good moments, but lacking in necessary detail, the movie isn’t as compelling as it needs to be.

American: The Bill Hicks Story (2009)

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American The Bill Hicks Story

D: Matt Harlock, Paul Thomas / 102m

Bill Hicks, Dwight Slade, Mary Hicks, Steve Hicks, Lynn Hicks, Kevin Booth, James Ladmirault, David Johndrow, John Farneti, Andy Huggins, Steve Epstein

From an early age growing up in Houston, Texas, it seems that Bill Hicks knew he wanted to be a comedian. At the age of thirteen he joined forces with his friend, Dwight Slade, and they started writing comedy material together. At fifteen, they snuck out of their homes to attend an open mic evening at the Comedy Workshop – and were a hit. But then Slade had to move away, leaving Hicks to build a career for himself.

He acquitted himself well on the comedy circuit, but early signs of alcohol abuse became more prevalent – and obvious – as Hicks used drinking in his act. While this allowed his true comic persona to show through, it lead to his addiction to cocaine, and a period in which his career virtually stalled. His initial promise, and fame, waned and it wasn’t until the late Eighties that he put his addictions behind him (though he continued to chain smoke throughout the rest of his life, even incorporating into his act). In 1990, Hicks’ career took an upturn when he appeared at the Montreal Just for Laughs festival. And later in the same year he appeared for the first time in the UK, where his brand of confrontational comedy caught on with audiences in a way that had never happened with US audiences; in short, they got him.

Hicks’ reputation increased off the back of his time in the UK, but even with such a boost he was still an acquired taste in the US. In 1993, he was scheduled to appear on Late Night with David Letterman, but his entire performance was cancelled from the show because the producers felt the content – which included references to the anti-abortion movement and religion – was unsuitable (the routine was finally aired on the show in 2009, and can be seen here). By this time, however, Hicks had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which had also spread to his liver. He kept it quiet, but began joking that each performance he gave might be his last. He died in February 1994, aged just thirty-two, but he remains one of the most popular, and influential, comedians of the last twenty-five years.

American The Bill Hicks Story - scene

If you’ve never seen any of Bill Hicks’ stand up routines, or watched one of his live videos, then it’s difficult to understand just how good a comedian he was. He used his keen intelligence and acerbic wit to poke fun at US mainstream society and its relation to politics, religion, consumerism, and state controls. He was often vitriolic in his routines and unflaggingly dismissive of social apathy, refusing to accept that as one audience member once said, “We don’t come to comedy to think!” If you were in the audience at one of his gigs, you had to be ready to be challenged, and not in a softly, softly way either; Hicks was uncompromising.

In telling his story, from his early life growing up in Houston, through to his final gig in January 1994, American: The Bill Hicks Story picks out the highs and lows of Hicks’ life and career, and paints a portrait of a man who left behind an indelible body of work, and who was taken from us too soon. The movie benefits from the involvement of his family: mother Mary, sister Lynn, and brother Steve, all of whom speak candidly about Hicks and his various battles with addiction, as well as the effect these had on his career. Hicks also spoke about these issues in his routines (though he remained an advocate of LSD, psychedelic mushrooms and marijuana), and he did so candidly; it’s somehow reassuring to learn that his family are the same. With their honest, heartfelt contributions, the movie is able to acknowledge Hicks as a troubled individual, but also one who was able to deal with it all, and use it as a tool to inform and educate his audiences.

Co-directors Harlock and Thomas have done a great job in assembling the various interviews that pepper the movie and give it a great deal of balance throughout. There are dozens of clips of Hicks doing what he did best, and they’ve been chosen with obvious care – one montage of Hicks accepting or having a drink onstage shows just how bad his addiction was. There’s plenty of archival footage of Hicks growing up, and the makers have adopted a graphic animated style to the material that keeps things interesting away from Hicks’ routines, and often proves inventive. Using cut-outs and graphic overlays, the movie is visually engaging and compelling, and although some viewers may have trouble keeping up with who’s providing the voice over at any given time, it doesn’t detract from the overall effectiveness of the material.

Hicks, like Lenny Bruce before him, was unafraid to challenge the establishment, and his disillusion and anger towards the powers that be are given full expression, and allow the viewer to see the passion Hicks displayed on stage. Whether or not the movie is entirely successful in showing the man behind the comedian is open for debate, as Hicks’ private life is barely touched upon unless it involves his family (for example there’s no mention of a girlfriend, or indeed, any kind of significant other), or the friends he made on the comedy circuit in Texas. But the movie’s focus is clearly on Hicks the comedian rather than Hicks the private individual, and as such, works supremely well at providing a fitting eulogy for a man who once said, “Do I have a message? Yes, I do. Here’s my message: as scary as the world is – and it is – it is merely a ride…”

Rating: 8/10 – an enjoyable, affectionate look back over the life of one of America’s finest – if not fully appreciated – comedians, American: The Bill Hicks Story is a worthy endorsement of Hicks’ life and career; by turns funny, sad, poignant and moving, but above all funny, the movie is a celebration that is both imaginative and sincere.

Oh! the Horror! – Backtrack (2014) and The Last House on Cemetery Lane (2015)

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Backtrack

aka Nazi Vengeance

D: Tom Sands / 97m

Cast: Mark Drake, Sophie Barker, Rosie Akerman, Miles Jovian, Julian Glover

When Ralph (Drake) undergoes past life regression at the suggestion of his friend Claudia (Akerman), he has visions of Nazis in the small English village of Plumpton, and the deaths of an unknown woman and her three children. Confused and upset by this, Ralph manages to persuade his girlfriend, Andrea (Barker), along with Claudia and her boyfriend Lucas (Jovian), to go on a camping trip to the South Downs, and to investigate the area that Ralph saw glimpses of. Finding the village proves more difficult than expected, and while Ralph and Claudia explore further afield, Andrea and Lucas stay with the tents and continue the affair they’ve been having. While in the midst of having sex, an old man knocks Lucas unconscious and threatens Andrea with a shotgun. He ties up both of them and takes them to an old farm building where he tortures them before leaving to find Ralph and Claudia.

Ralph and Claudia return to the tents but don’t immediately realise that their partners have been abducted. Later they do, but by then it’s late and they decide to bed down for the night and go for help in the morning. The old man attempts to grab them but they manage to escape. Having got away, Claudia suggests that Ralph undergo further regression in an effort to find out more about what happened in Plumpton, and if it has any bearing on what’s happening to them now. Ralph learns he was one of the Nazis he saw before, and that he was responsible for the deaths of the woman and her children. He and Claudia seek shelter in a church but the old man is laying in wait for them; they too find themselves held captive with their partners in the old farm building and at the mercy of the old man’s thirst for revenge.

Backtrack - scene

Sometimes, when watching horror films – especially if you’ve seen way too many of them for your own good – there’s often a point where you know exactly what’s going to happen next, and how, and why. This is the feeling you get after the first five minutes of Backtrack, and the feeling persists throughout. For example, when Ralph and Claudia realise their other halves have been abducted, neither of them can make a call on their mobile phones (naturally). Or when Ralph realises he was a Nazi – something the viewer’s known all along. Or when Claudia tells Ralph to keep a Swiss Army knife in his pocket because, you know, it just might come in handy later on. But these examples of lazy storytelling aside, this is a movie that gets it wrong on so many levels it’s almost embarrassing.

While the basic idea of Backtrack is okay for this sort of thing – revenge-driven World War II survivor targets reincarnated souls who killed his family – the movie is defeated from the beginning by some really really really terrible dialogue (think Harrison Ford’s famous quote, “You can type this shit, but you can’t say it”, and you’ll find you’re not even close to how bad the dialogue is). Defeat comes as well through its cast’s complete inability to make the dialogue sound even remotely normal (even Glover, a classically trained actor, can’t do anything with it). And to make matters worse, the cast are uniformly awful, giving amateurish performances and exposing their lack of experience, and lack of knowledge of their craft in every scene.

Stepping away from the world of documentaries for which he’s best known, Sands does a ham-fisted job in every sense, and fails to inject any tension or drama into the proceedings, leaving the cast to fend for themselves and showing no sign that he’s recognised the absurdities of Mick Sands’ apparently first draft script (the old man stalks the two couples by tractor, one that must have the biggest muffler in the world attached to it, as it doesn’t make a sound). With basic attempts at framing and composition, and the feeling that a lot of shots were first takes, the look and feel of Backtrack is that of a movie that should have had a lot more attention paid to it at all stages of its production.

Rating: 1/10 – dire in every way possible, Backtrack is an object lesson in how not to make a low budget horror movie; if the choice is watching this or watching paint dry, then watch the paint – at least it’s got a more credible story arc.

 

Last House on Cemetery Lane, The

D: Andrew Jones / 81m

Cast: Lee Bane, Georgina Blackledge, Tessa Wood, Vivien Bridson

When screenwriter John Davies (Bane) rents a house for a couple of months in order to work on his latest screenplay, he finds there’s a sitting tenant up on the third floor: a blind old lady (Bridson) who never leaves her room. Annoyed at first because there was no mention of the old lady in the advertisement he saw, John is reassured by the estate agent (Wood) that it won’t interfere with his work. He spends a day or so visiting the nearby town and reminiscing on the visits he made to the area as a child. Then, one day, he meets a young woman, Cassie (Blackledge) in the garden. She apologises for being there, but John is unconcerned and, slightly smitten, tells her she can visit again if she wants to.

As his relationship with Cassie develops into something more romantic, John begins to have nightmares and experience strange phenomena. At night, a record player comes on and plays the same song each time. A doll in one of the bedrooms is found on the stairs, and a picture that hangs in the hallway ends up on the floor without being touched. He contacts the estate agent to see if the house has a history, but she says there’s nothing to tell. Cassie suggests using a ouija board, but John rejects the idea – at first. One night he uses one to find out if anything has happened in the past, and it tells him that there was a murder there. Convinced that the old lady must know what’s going on, he visits her, only to find that nothing is quite as it seems, and that his life is now in danger.

Cemetery Lane

With the look and feel of a short movie expanded to meet the needs of a full-length feature, The Last House on Cemetery Lane contains a lot of padding and a shortage of actual drama. The first twenty minutes contain enough off-putting moments to make even die-hard horror fans tune out from boredom, and though the introduction of the blind old lady adds a bit of mystery to proceedings, John’s walk through the nearest town, and then along the beach (accompanied on the soundtrack by a trenchant piece of AOR) seems almost like a test: if you can endure this, then the rest of the movie will be a piece of cake (or a walk on said beach). And even though writer/director Jones begins throwing the odd bit of supernatural phenomena into the mix, the movie finds itself focusing on John and Cassie’s relationship instead, subjecting the viewer to mildly interesting scenes where they get to know each other and trade inane lines of dialogue.

It’s not until John consults the ouija board that the movie begins to pick up pace and reminds itself as to why it’s here. The old lady’s revelations, though, prove less than original and lead to a violent showdown that borrows from Halloween (1978) for a key moment, and which lacks any real tension thanks to the clumsy way in which it’s shot and edited. And with a clear resolution to the tale, the script then undermines and ignores its own logic, both insulting itself and the patient viewer. With so much going on that lacks adequate attention from Jones, it’s left to Bane to carry the bulk of the movie, and while he’s worked with Jones on several previous occasions, even he can’t help the viewer along when the going becomes dull.

A haunted house mystery where the real mystery is why the movie was ever produced, Jones’ strives for atmosphere but misses it by a mile, and never develops his own tale beyond its mundane opening scene. There’s the germ of a good movie here, but Jones and his crew can’t quite get a grip on it.

Rating: 3/10 – only occasionally intriguing, The Last House on Cemetery Lane is a throwback to the kind of rural thrillers made in the Seventies, but without any energy or attempts at effective pacing; with a score that’s more irritating than eerie (not to mention too loud in places), any pleasure to be had will come from its brevity, and its brevity alone.

Everly (2014)

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Everly

D: Joe Lynch / 92m

Cast: Salma Hayek, Hiroyuki Watanabe, Laura Cepeda, Togo Igawa, Akie Kotabe, Gabriella Wright, Caroline Chikezie, Jennifer Blanc, Jelena Gavrilovic, Aisha Ayamah

Everly (Hayek) has been held captive for four years in an apartment building by notorious gangster Taiko (Watanabe). She hasn’t seen her five year old daughter, Maisey (Ayamah), or mother Edith (Cepeda), in all that time. Having made the decision to help the police by informing on Taiko, her plan to get out from his clutches begins to backfire when he finds out what’s she’s done. He leaves her to several of his gang, who abuse her, but she has a gun hidden in her apartment and she uses it to kill them. With her police contact having been disposed of by Taiko, he calls to tell her that she won’t be getting out of the apartment alive. He puts a bounty on her head, and soon, the prostitutes working on the same floor are all trying to kill her.

Everly deals with all of them except for Anna (Wright), with whom she strikes a bargain: let her have two hours to make sure her mother and daughter are out of the city, and she’ll let Anna kill her and collect the bounty. Unable to get a sizeable amount of money to them, she thinks of a way in which they can come to her. Before that can happen she has to fight off various would-be assassins, and deal with one of Taiko’s gang she calls Dead Man (Kotabe), who is bleeding to death on her couch. He helps her to avoid being killed and when Edith and Maisey arrive he watches over Maisey while Everly explains the situation to her mother. But the arrival of The Sadist (Igawa) and his group of Kabuki-masked sidekicks puts Everly and her mother in mortal jeopardy, as Everly finds herself caged and forced to watch as her mother is threatened with various forms of acid.

Everly - scene

Beginning with a dark screen and a soundtrack filled with a woman’s cries of pain and then followed by an overhead shot of a heavily-tattooed, and naked, woman stumbling into a bathroom, Everly announces itself as a less-than-subtle action movie from the get-go. And so it proves, with ever more ridiculous bouts of frenzied action, ever more inane dialogue (which culminates in Taiko arriving and displaying his knowledge of the Psycho’s Book of Villainous Monologues), ever more uncomfortable moments involving the five year old Amayah, and the narrative skipping merrily from one absurd scene to the next in its quest to be as over-the-top as possible.

And therein lies the main problem with Yale Hannon’s overcooked screenplay: it tries too hard to be hip, funny and profane. Its hyper-stylised violence aside, the movie is a cornucopia of awkward humour – Maisey wanting to open a Xmas present that has a policeman’s head inside – and misjudged sentiment: Everly being able to convince Anna not to kill her straight away. (As plot devices go, this one is about as credible as Everly being shot in the side and it leaving huge entrance and exit wounds, wounds she then shrugs off for the rest of the movie.) Add in The Sadist’s cruel, icy menace, and Taiko’s barely suppressed rage, and you have a script that borders on misogyny at the same time as it propagates the idea of the strong, determined woman who’ll defend her family at all costs (as long as she’s wearing a tight-fitting, bust-enhancing bra and top).

Hayek is lumbered with a role that allows her to show Everly as brave, vulnerable, resourceful, sensitive, determined, and sometimes scared and fearless in the same scene (there are times when the actress looks as bewildered by what’s happening as the viewer probably is). But this is a movie where the main character is the movie, and without Hayek throwing herself into it – literally – a lot of what passes for serious dramatics would fall flat on its face in seconds (that original choice Kate Hudson would have been as good is hard to imagine). Hayek is rueful, proud and undeniably sexy (even when spattered with blood), and she dominates the movie, her sharp-angled features as expressive as ever, and her sheer physicality in the role proving a decided bonus.

Of the supporting cast, Kotabe as the kind-hearted yakuza “Dead Man”, and Cepeda as Everly’s worried, and harried, mother make the most impact, while Watanabe tries to be cold-hearted and threatening but succeeds in making Taiko peevish and grouchy instead, and considering the relative ease with which she’s offed around two dozen or so people, unable to realise just how deadly Everly can be (frighteningly so, in fact, showing an aptitude for handling and using guns that is never even close to being explained properly). With the main villain given such a build-up, to have him “monologue” and give Everly too many chances to kill him, it’s a wonder he’s made it as far as he has.

On the technical side, Steve Galner’s cinematography adds a pleasing amount of gloom to proceedings, and the movie never once looks as garish as you might expect. The action scenes are ably assembled by editor Evan Schiff and have a visceral intensity about them that keeps the movie ticking over from one outlandish stunt to the next, and Ondrej Nekvasil’s production design helps play down the fact that the apartment varies in size from scene to scene. Overseeing all this, Lynch displays a fondness for odd camera angles that don’t always enhance the image, but he does score highly in the way he stages each new assault on Everly with a fair degree of visual inventiveness.

Rating: 4/10 – uneven throughout, and lacking the flair needed to carry this beyond being just a vicarious thrill-ride, Everly is a balls-to-the-wall action movie whose reach is let down by its grasp; Hayek is great, but is let down by haphazard plotting and shifts in tone and perspective that don’t always work.

Trailer – I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story (2014)

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When Sesame Street debuted in 1969, it would have been regarded as a bit of a long shot that the same performer would still be playing the same role, and on such a regular basis, over forty-five years later. But in the case of Caroll Spinney (aka Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch), that’s exactly what’s happened. This documentary about the man in the orange and black striped leggings has all the hallmarks of a lovingly crafted appreciation of one of the show’s (largely) unsung heroes. As a trip down Memory Lane for many of us, it’s a reminder of just how good a performer he is – and if you’ve seen his recent spoof of Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), how good a performer he still is.

Mandrake, the Magician (1939) – Chapter 10: The Unseen Monster

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Mandrake, the Magician

D: Sam Nelson, Norman Deming / 16m

Cast: Warren Hull, Doris Weston, Al Kikume, Rex Downing, Edward Earle, Forbes Murray, Kenneth MacDonald, Don Beddoe, John Tyrrell

Having both been thrown clear of the train crash, Lothar finds Mandrake unconscious at the side of the wreckage. While he goes to find a doctor, an ambulance arrives and takes Mandrake away. Lothar catches sight of it, and later, tells Professor Houston, Betty, Dr Bennett and Raymond about it. Deciding that a search of the local hospitals is the best way forward, Betty and Raymond try to find Mandrake together, while Bennett searches on his own. Meanwhile, Mandrake is taken to a room in the Green Valley Rest Home and tied up. Later, Webster is brought to the rest home as well, and chained to the wall in another room.

Betty, Raymond and Bennett arrange to meet at their last destination, the Green Valley Rest Home. Bennett arrives first and is locked in another room. When Betty and Raymond get there, he decides to look around the grounds; eventually he goes inside and gets involved in a fight with two of the Wasp’s men. Betty is caught also, and she’s locked in yet another room. The Wasp appears in person to interrogate Mandrake, but when he’s brought from his room, with a hood over his head, it turns out to be his guard. Loose in the building, Mandrake tries to find a way out. Betty also manages to escape her room and the two meet up. But with corridors being blocked off by the Wasp and his henchman Dirk, they’re herded into the east wing, which is then blown up.

Mandrake 10

Pushing the narrative forward, Chapter 10: The Unseen Monster is yet another fast-paced episode that packs a lot into its short running time, and which succeeds in having fun with the identity of the Wasp. With all three suspects gathered together in one place – Bennett, Raymond and Webster – it’s up to the viewer to work out just who is the masked criminal (though there is another clue hidden away amongst all the mayhem). It’s a clever move, designed to throw doubt in the viewer’s mind if they’ve settled for one particular character already, and it adds a level of drama that’s been missing for several episodes. And with Mandrake sidelined for most of the chapter, it’s a welcome change of focus.

It also makes for a pleasing change in tone, with the emphasis on action in the previous two episodes downplayed in favour of putting everyone in peril, and giving its supporting players a lot more to do. This allows directors Nelson and Deming a chance to adopt a more studied race against time scenario, rather than the breakneck speed they’ve had to employ thus far. And there’s still time for a few series’ favourites, such as a couple of rounds of fisticuffs, and Mandrake’s hat going with him in the ambulance – even the Wasp’s men know how important it is to him – and being knocked off and then quickly put back on during a fight.

Rating: 6/10 – with two episodes to go, Chapter 10: The Unseen Monster shows the serial heading towards its conclusion with a much needed injection of gusto; playing up the Who-is-the-Wasp angle works a treat, and results in an episode that shows the serial won’t be on auto-pilot all the way to the end.

Bad Asses on the Bayou (2015)

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Bad Asses on the Bayou

D: Craig Moss / 85m

Cast: Danny Trejo, Danny Glover, John Amos, Loni Love, Jimmy Bennett, Carol Sutton, Sammi Rotibi, Davi Jay, Judd Lormand, Jeff Pope

Pensioners with attitude Frank Vega (Trejo) and Bernie Pope (Glover) are still the best of friends and still annoying each other. When their friend Carmen (Love) calls to say she’s getting married, and she wants both of them to come to Baton Rouge for the wedding – with all expenses paid by her father Earl (Amos) – they head on down for the festivities. They meet Earl’s wife, Lois (Sutton), Carmen’s brother Ronald (Bennett), and Carmen’s wheelchair-bound fiancé, Geoffrey (Rotini). But on their first night at Earl’s mansion home, intruders break in and kidnap Carmen, despite Frank’s best efforts to stop them. The next day, Earl receives a ransom demand for $5 million, due in thirty-two hours.

The local chief of police, Broussard (Jay) takes charge of the investigation, but he’s aware of Frank and Bernie’s notoriety and warns them against getting involved. In no time at all they ignore Broussard’s advice, and using a clue found by Ronald, track one of the gang of intruders to a local club. There they force him to tell them the name of another gang member, Landry (Pope), who is more “connected”. While Carmen remains imprisoned in an abandoned factory, and her family struggle to deal with her kidnapping, Frank and Bernie ignore a further, more serious warning from Detective Williamson (Lormand) and track down Landry who tells them where Carmen is being held. At the same time, Carmen manages to escape from the room where she’s been imprisoned. She ends up in an office where she’s able to fax her location to the police.

However, the fax is intercepted by one of Broussard’s deputies who takes it to his chief. On their way to the abandoned factory, Frank and Bernie are forced to stop by uniformed police. Broussard is with them, and it becomes clear that he’s behind the kidnapping. He knocks Frank unconscious; when he comes to he and Bernie are on their way to an airstrip. Broussard’s plan is to have them thrown out of a plane to their deaths. But Frank and Bernie have other ideas…

Bad Asses on the Bayou - scene

The first Bad Ass movie, released in 2012, was based on the real-life exploits of Thomas Bruso. It was an uneven mix of wish fulfilment action beats and cornball humour that did enough to warrant a sequel, Bad Asses (2014). This upped the humour, thanks largely to the involvement of Glover, and showed that there was mileage to be had from a pensioner – or two – who wasn’t prepared to take any shit. With no sign that the series is stopping any time soon, and with the budget getting bigger with each instalment, Bad Asses on the Bayou shows the series stretching credibility and common sense in its efforts to provide a good time.

Lacking a cohesive script, the movie opts to play out like a Seventies low budget actioner, with dreadful leaps in both narrative and characterisation, and with writer/director Moss clearly having assembled his script from the bottom of the bin marked “clichés”. So we have Frank and Bernie bickering in a bank and foiling a robbery. We have Frank and Bernie taking out purse thieves at a gas station (actually well choreographed). We have Frank dispensing wisdom to a bullied Ronald, Carmen played as a sassy, high-energy stereotype, Bernie hitting on women around three times younger than he is, and the odd moment of sadistic violence (Frank pushing Landry’s face into a fat frier). And to cap it all we have intermittent scenes where Bernie’s recent liver transplant causes him pain at the wrong time (but which is never developed any further than that).

There’s also some poorly executed attempts at humour – Bernie: “I ain’t running” – and Moss hasn’t decided if he’s spoofing his own creation yet, but with Trejo’s performance bordering on tired already, and Glover playing Bernie exactly as he did in Bad Asses, the series is in danger of disappearing up its own absurdity. It’s not enough this time round for the movie to flirt with plausibility and then leave it high and dry like a forgotten bride at the altar, or for it to include moderately well executed action sequences that show off where the bulk of the budget has been used. Instead of using the extra money to strengthen, expand or add depth to the original concept, Moss and co have taken Frank and Bernie out of their comfort zones and relocated them to the Deep South – and fallen back on the same approach they used in the first two movies, thus making the change of scenery no real change at all (and Frank and Bernie never actually spend any time “on the bayou”).

With Baton Rouge proving a poor, unfriendly backdrop to the main storyline – a short montage of the sights of Baton Rouge shows very little that could be considered attractive about the area – and a visual style that highlights blandness each time, Bad Asses on the Bayou is the least interesting of the series to watch in terms of its look and feel, and is a movie propagated with too many similar-sounding rap songs. If there is to be another Bad Ass movie, and this one promises a next instalment titled Bad Asses in Bangcock (yep, that’s how they’ve spelt it), then let’s hope that Moss works from someone else’s (better) script, and Trejo and Glover are given more to do than beat people up and make cheap wisecracks.

Rating: 4/10 – the law of diminishing sequels kicks in with a vengeance, leaving Bad Asses on the Bayou looking and feeling like a half-finished idea that sounded good at the time; with a sense that everyone involved is treading water, or just going through the motions, keeping the series going may not be the best way forward for both the makers and for future audiences.

Mini-Review: The Wedding Ringer (2015)

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Wedding Ringer, The

D: Jeremy Garelick / 101m

Cast: Kevin Hart, Josh Gad, Affion Crockett, Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting, Jorge Garcia, Dan Gill, Corey Holcomb, Colin Kane, Aaron Takahashi, Alan Ritchson, Ken Howard, Olivia Thirlby, Mimi Rogers, Cloris Leachman, Ignacio Serricchio, Jenifer Lewis

Though Doug Harris (Gad) is a successful tax attorney, when it comes to his impending marriage to Gretchen Palmer (Cuoco-Sweeting), he’s having no success in conjuring up a best man or any other friends to be his groomsmen. With literally no one to call on, Doug hears about The Best Man Inc and checks it out. He meets best man for hire Jimmy Callaghan (Hart) and explains his predicament. Jimmy realises he needs a “Golden Tux” (seven groomsmen), which has never been done before. He takes on the challenge and finds seven “friends” for Doug who will be able to attend various pre-wedding functions and be there on the day.

Jimmy assumes the role of Bic Mitchum, a military priest fresh from a tour in El Salvador. He and Doug spend time getting to “know” each other before Jimmy meets Gretchen’s family, including her ultra-competitive dad (Howard) and immediately suspicious sister, Allison (Thirlby). Doug and Jimmy do well enough that Gretchen doesn’t suspect a thing, though as the wedding day gets nearer and nearer, a bond develops between Jimmy and Doug that Jimmy is wary of, as his one stipulation is that their relationship is purely a business one. But on the day of the wedding, Jimmy learns something that changes everything, including his role of best man, and Doug’s role as the groom. Does he keep to the terms of his agreement with Doug, or does he put it all aside to help Doug?

Kevin Hart;Josh Gad;Affion Crockett;Jorge Garcia

The latest movie in Kevin Hart’s seemingly unstoppable rise to superstardom, The Wedding Ringer is a comedy feature that pauses on too many occasions to ram home its message about the importance of friendship, and largely forgets to include the belly laughs it so desperately needs to work. It’s workmanlike stuff, the script by director Garelick and Jay Lavender never really coming up with situations or diversions that prove really funny. It is amusing – what happens to Gretchen’s gran (Leachman) at the lunch is surreally hilarious – but only in fits and starts. Like many comedies released in recent years, there’s too much exposition and too much emphasis on the set up rather than the pay off. What doesn’t help is that Hart appears to coasting on auto pilot, while Gad (easily the better comic actor) is stuck playing the straight guy.

The whole premise is weak, and Doug’s explanation for his situation seems improbable, while Jimmy’s lack of friends seems equally unlikely. There are lots of other contrivances on display, and they all stop the movie from being anything more than a loosely connected series of scenes that are there to tick the boxes. Garelick makes his feature debut but fails to impress, and the whole look of the movie is one step removed from a TV episode. Ultimately, it’s a movie that doesn’t try very hard, and gives new meaning to the word “underwhelming”.

Rating: 4/10 – with Hart citing The Wedding Ringer as his “best work to date”, some viewers may think it has a lot going for it, but the truth is more banal: it’s just not as funny as it should be; predictable and too pedestrian to be effective, the movie is a disappointment, and wastes its more than capable cast.

Cake (2014)

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Cake

D: Daniel Barnz / 102m

Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Sam Worthington, Anna Kendrick, Mamie Gummer, Felicity Huffman, Chris Messina, William H. Macy, Lucy Punch, Britt Robertson

Claire Bennett (Aniston) attends a chronic pain support group following a car accident that has left her severely injured and in constant pain. At one meeting she learns that another member of the group, Nina Collins (Kendrick), has committed suicide. When it’s Claire’s turn to express how she feels about this, she is cruel and acerbic. When she gets home, she finds a message on her phone from Annette (Huffman) who suggests Claire find another support group. There’s another message, from her estranged husband, Jason (Messina), but she ignores it.

Claire has a housemaid, Silvana (Barraza), who also drives her from place to place when needed. They have a combative relationship, especially when it comes to the amount of medication Claire consumes (she even hides extra pills around the house). However, Claire relies on her too much to fire her. One night, Claire has a vision of Nina in which Nina challenges Claire as to why she hasn’t committed suicide herself. The next day, at her aquatic therapy appointment Claire tries to drown herself but her instinct for survival stops her. Following this, Claire contacts Annette and blackmails her into giving her Nina’s address. She goes there and meets Nina’s husband, Roy (Worthington).

A mutually supportive relationship develops between them. This leads to Claire beginning to feel a little better about herself (though she still persuades Silvana to take her to Tijuana where she can get some stronger, non-prescribed medication). She starts to make things up to people, including Annette, and allows Roy to bring his son over to her house for lunch. The visit prompts several unhappy reminiscences but while she’s able to deal with them it proves impossible when Claire receives another, unwanted, visitor: the man (Macy) who caused the car accident. Claire attacks him and later takes an overdose. In hospital, and following another disturbing vision of Nina, she makes the decision to try and get by without any further medication.

Cake - scene

An often stark, unshowy drama with spells of unexpected indifference to its own characters, Cake nearly overcomes its dour presentation thanks to an inspired performance by Aniston. In many ways, the movie wouldn’t be as good without her – she provides some much needed depth throughout, and a strong focal point. Claire is a great role for any actress, but Aniston is convincing from beginning to end, every painful twitch and grimace played so naturally the viewer could be forgiven for wondering if Aniston had deliberately injured herself ahead of filming.

With her puffy face, lank hair and baggy clothing, Claire is a woman whose only focus in life is her physical pain; beyond that, everything else is of minimal importance. She’s wounded, physically and emotionally, and is struggling to move forward. Without her medication, or her caustic view on life, she would have nothing. Struggling to keep mind and body together, she bullies Silvana, manipulates Roy, and keeps her distance from Jason, but even with these interactions and off-kilter relationships – especially her visions of Nina – she begins to find a way back to the person she was before the accident. It’s a gradual, carefully shaded portrayal, with Aniston keeping a lot below the surface but using her eyes to convey the warring emotions inside Claire. It’s an honest, deeply affecting performance and Aniston’s presence in the movie, as mentioned above, makes it all the more compelling.

If Aniston hadn’t committed to the project, or a similar performance hadn’t been provided by another actress, then Cake would not be as good a movie as it is. The problem lies with Patrick Tobin’s emotionally redolent screenplay, which focuses so completely on its main character that, Silvana aside, everyone else is underwritten and orbit around Claire to little effect. Roy and Claire’s relationship always looks to be a platonic one, so the usual will-they-won’t-they dramatics are ignored from the moment they first meet (there’s also a distinct lack of chemistry between Aniston and Worthington that undercuts things even further). The only other character of merit is Nina, but Kendrick is stuck with playing her as interfering and annoying rather than as the representation of Claire’s conscience that she should be. Thankfully, Barraza gives a wonderful performance that often matches Aniston’s for emotional honesty, Silvana’s increasing affection for Claire given full expression through every exasperated sigh and shrug of her shoulders.

The rest of the movie contains a lot of elements that don’t appear fully formed or thought through. Nina’s suicide, the McGuffin that propels the movie, is never explored from the angle of why she was at the pain support group in the first place, and the note she leaves, while meant to be poignant, instead comes across as poorly chosen and clichéd. Macy’s character turns up for no discernible reason other than as a chance to inject some much needed (actual) drama into proceedings; by this time we know the circumstances of Claire’s accident and its consequences, so it’s baffling as to why he’s there. And a later sequence that sees Claire chatting regretfully with Nina while lying across a train track, and which should be one of the movie’s standout moments, is let down by some trite dialogue and Barnz’ clumsy framing.

Further problems are caused by Barnz’ inability to maintain a consistent tone, and to move the camera in ways that might prove visually interesting, or at least stave off the criticism that most scenes are made up of dull shots of Claire being upset. It’s a bland, desaturated movie to watch, with disjointed rhythms and a lack of grace when dealing with shifts in emphasis and mood. There are moments of black humour – Claire asking Roy where he got the granite for Nina’s headstone as it’s the same material she’d like for a kitchen revamp – but Barnz doesn’t treat them any differently from occasions when Claire is feeling maudlin, or angry, or reflective. Yes, Claire is in some ways emotionally numb (if not physically so), but not to the extent that she’s operating on the same level at all times. But Barnz hits a plateau early on and rarely makes any attempt to aim any higher.

Rating: 5/10 – saved from being completely off-putting by Aniston’s intense, award-worthy performance, Cake is a movie that struggles with its own premise and never gets off the ground; occasionally heartfelt but mostly sterile in nature, it’s a movie that holds too much back in terms of its narrative to be successful.

Mini-Review: Focus (2015)

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Focus

D: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa / 105m

Cast: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Gerald McRaney, Adrian Martinez, BD Wong, Robert Taylor, Brennan Brown, Dotan Bonen

Longtime conman Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) meets inexperienced grifter Jess (Robbie) and despite his initial misgivings, agrees to tutor her in the ways of becoming a real con artist. He takes her to New Orleans where he involves her in a series of minor cons such as pickpocketing. He introduces her to his crew as they prepare to hit the town during the Superbowl weekend. Altogether they amass $1.2 million from their efforts, but Nicky takes Jess to the Superbowl game where he’s challenged by compulsive gambler Liyuan Tse (Wong). The bets grow bigger until Nicky loses the money he and his crew have gained. He gets Liyuan to go for double or nothing and loses again. It’s only on when the stakes reach an even higher level that Jess realises it’s all a con designed to part Liyuan from his money.

With their relationship becoming romantic, Nicky’s reservations about becoming involved with a fellow con artist lead him to pay off Jess and leave her in New Orleans. Three years pass. Nicky is in Buenos Aires working a sting on local businessman and racing car team owner Garriga (Santoro) when he discovers that Jess is Garriga’s girlfriend. His feelings for her resurface, making it difficult for him to continue with the sting. He tries to pursue her at the same time, but Jess is reluctant to get involved with him a second time. Garriga’s head of security, Owens (McRaney) is suspicious of what Nicky is actually up to, and when he and Garriga become aware of the true sting, they grab Nicky and Jess as they try to leave town. Taken to an abandoned warehouse, Nicky has to find a way to keep both of them alive.

Focus - scene

Will Smith’s recent big screen appearances – the dreadful After Earth (2013), and cameos in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013) and Winter’s Tale (2014) – have been less than overwhelming, so it’s no surprise that he’s returned with a role that allows him to express the kind of genial, roguish charm that he’s more renowned for. However, thanks to a script by directors Ficarra and Requa that never quite works out what type of movie it is, Focus allows Smith only occasional chances to shine, and in the end, leaves him as stranded as Jess is in New Orleans. At one point, Nicky says that he can convince anyone of anything, but in practice he never convinces the viewer that his feelings for Jess are real, or even that he’s as good a conman as he makes out.

Away from Smith’s painful attempts at looking lovelorn, we have a movie that struggles to add any thrills to proceedings and only really comes alive thanks to Wong’s involvement at the Superbowl game; his extrovert performance is the movie’s one highlight. Afterwards it’s all downhill with a less than convoluted con game that steals shamelessly from The Sting (1974) and asks us to take such a leap of faith in terms of what happens to Nicky that most viewers will be picking their jaws up off the floor in stunned disbelief (or amusement). Slackly directed, and with a supporting cast reduced to mouthing platitudes, Focus won’t hang around long in the memory, and proves another stumbling block in Smith’s return to the A-list.

Rating: 5/10 – good location photography and a glossy sheen to things lift Focus out of the doldrums, and the pickpocket sequences – overseen by Apollo Robbins – are cleverly constructed and edited; with Robbie adrift in a sea of watered-down machismo, however, this is not a movie that serves its cast particularly well and is worryingly predictable.

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