Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

Tags

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

Sin City A Dame to Kill For

D: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller / 102m

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

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

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

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

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

Sin City A Dame to Kill For - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Equalizer (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

Equalizer, The

D: Antoine Fuqua / 131m

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

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

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

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

Equalizer, The - scene

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

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

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

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

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

 

Poster of the Week – Vera Drake (2004)

Tags

, , , ,

Vera Drake

Vera Drake (2004)

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

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

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

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

Tags

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

Magic in the Moonlight

D: Woody Allen / 97m

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

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

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

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

Magic in the Moonlight - scene

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

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

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

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

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

Leprechaun: Origins (2014)

Tags

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

Leprechaun Origins

D: Zach Lipovsky / 90m

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

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

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

Leprechaun Origins - scene

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Guest (2014)

Tags

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

Guest, The

D: Adam Wingard / 99m

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

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

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

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

Guest, The - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mini-Review: Not Safe for Work (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

Not Safe for Work

D: Joe Johnston / 74m

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

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

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

Not Safe for Work - scene

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

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

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

Into the Storm (2014)

Tags

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

Into the Storm

D: Steven Quale / 89m

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

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

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

Into the Storm - scene

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

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

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

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

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

Tags

, , , , , , ,

Demetrius and the Gladiators

Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954)

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

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

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

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

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

Lucy (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Lucy

D: Luc Besson / 89m

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

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

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

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

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

Lucy - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trials of Cate McCall (2013)

Tags

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

Trials of Cate McCall, The

D: Karen Moncrieff / 89m

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

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

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

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

Trials of Cate McCall, The - scene

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

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

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

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

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

Zatoichi the Fugitive (1963)

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

Zatoichi the Fugitive

Original title: Zatôichi kyôjô-tabi

D: Tokuzô Tanaka / 86m

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

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

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

Zatoichi the Fugitive - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Boxtrolls (2014)

Tags

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

Boxtrolls, The

D: Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable / 97m

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

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

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

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

Boxtrolls, The - scene

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

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

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

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

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

Kristy (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

Kristy

D: Olly Blackburn / 86m

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

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

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

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

RANDOM

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTE: Kristy is showing at this year’s London Film Festival on 15 and 17 October (at separate venues).  For further info, visit: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::permalink=kristy

Eraser (1996)

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

Eraser

D: Charles Russell / 115m

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

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

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

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

Eraser - scene

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mini-Review: The Inbetweeners 2 (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Inbetweeners 2, The

D: Damon Beesley, Iain Morris / 96m

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

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

Inbetweeners 2, The - scene

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

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

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

Sex Tape (2014)

Tags

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

Sex Tape

D: Jake Kasdan / 94m

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

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

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

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

Sex Tape - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poster of the Week – Psycho (1960)

Tags

, , ,

Psycho (1960)

Psycho (1960)

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

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

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

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

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

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

Forgetting the Girl (2012)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Forgetting the Girl

D: Nate Taylor / 85m

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

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

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

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

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

Forgetting the Girl - scene

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

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

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

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

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

 

50 Movies to Look Forward to in 2015 – Part 2

Tags

, ,

Minions - poster

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

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

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

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

Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The - scene

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

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

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

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

Blackhat - scene

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

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

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

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

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

Good Dinosaur, The - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Absolutely Anything - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before I Go to Sleep (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

J2730_BeforeIGoToSleep_OneSheet_31F.indd

D: Rowan Joffe / 92m

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

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

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

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

Before I Go to Sleep - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

50 Movies to Look Forward to in 2015 – Part 1

Tags

, ,

Minions - poster

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

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

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

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

Mad Max Fury Road - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regression - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Triple Nine - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jupiter Ascending - scene

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

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

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

Blended (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

304053id1c_Blended_Final_Rated_27x40_1Sheet_5C.indd

D: Frank Coraci / 117m

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

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

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

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

Blended - scene

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

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

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

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

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

Are You Here (2013)

Tags

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

Are You Here

D: Matthew Weiner / 112m

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

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

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

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

Are You Here - scene

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

And yet…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tags

, , , , , , ,

Hound of the Baskervilles, The (1959)

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

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

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

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

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

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

Scooby-Doo! Frankencreepy (2014)

Tags

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

Scooby-Doo! Frankencreepy

D: Paul McEvoy / 74m

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

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

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

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

Scooby-Doo! Frankencreepy - scene

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

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

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

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

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

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

Possession of Michael King, The

D: David Jung / 83m

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

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

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

Possession of Michael King, The - scene

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

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

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

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Sleepy Hollow

D: Tim Burton / 105m

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

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

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

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

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

Sleepy Hollow - scene

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

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

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

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

Coherence (2013)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

Coherence

D: James Ward Byrkit / 89m

Cast: Emily Foxler, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brendon, Elizabeth Gracen, Alex Manugian, Lauren Maher, Hugo Armstrong, Lorene Scafaria

Eight friends gather together for a dinner party on an evening when a comet is passing close to Earth.  Em (Foxler) is the first to arrive and just as she gets there the screen of her mobile phone cracks for no apparent reason.  The same thing happens to Hugh (Armstrong).  Passing it off as an unfortunate side effect of the comet’s passing, the group of friends continue with their meal.  There is some tension as one of them, Amir (Manugian), has brought his new girlfriend, Laurie (Maher) with him and she used to go out with Kevin (Sterling) who is there with Em.  As they talk about various issues, Em has a growing sense of unease.  When the lights go out suddenly, a look outside reveals the whole area is without electricity – except for another house a couple of blocks away.  With their mobile phones not working, and no landline, Hugh and Amir decide to go over to the other house to see if the people there have a phone they can use.

When they return, they have a box with them.  When they open the box they find a ping pong bat and pictures of themselves with numbers written on the back of each of the pictures.  What makes this discovery even more disturbing is that the photo of Amir has been taken that evening, there in the house.  As the group tries to work out what’s going on, personal rivalries and past betrayals come to the fore, and the secret of the house nearby begins to reveal itself.

Coherence - scene

To reveal more about the structure and the nature of Coherence would be to do a disservice to both the movie and any potential viewers.  Suffice it to say, the movie is a clever, intriguing mix of science fiction and relationship drama, with more twists and turns than the average Agatha Christie adaptation.  The central premise is well executed, and the way in which the characters behave, and how they react to what is going on, is handled with careful attention to detail.  The mystery unfolds slowly at first, and deliberately, until the effects of the comet’s passing begin to snowball, with one revelation after another pulling the rug out from under each of the friends.

Be warned though: you will need to pay attention, and not just to what’s being said, but also to the visuals, where there are plenty of clues to be found.  Coherence demands a lot, but it’s worth the investment.  Thanks to the cleverly detailed script by writer/director Byrkit, the movie takes a recent development in quantum mechanics and uses it as the foundation for the strange events that take place.  As the movie gets “weirder”, Byrkit keeps track of the marginal changes that occur alongside the more obvious ones in a way that – mostly – keeps the viewer up to speed.  It’s often the more subtle clues that have the greater effect (keep an eye out for the band aid).  That said, the movie does trip itself up a couple of times in its efforts to make things even more complex than they already are, but for such a low-budget, and largely improvised production, these should be forgiven.

The cast do extremely well with the material, especially considering they were given only basic outlines of their characters and motivations, and the more major plot points.  To their collective credit, they all acquit themselves well, with special mention going to Foxler (better known as Emily Baldoni), Brendon (as host Mike), and Armstrong.  Considering the set up, and its potential for some unnecessary over-acting, it’s good to see a cast who are committed to the material in such a way that even the most dubious of reactions or decisions are acceptable, or made plausible by their conviction.  One revelation could have easily gone down the route of being played as soap opera, but instead it’s played with power and validity.

In the director’s chair, Byrkit orchestrates things with confidence and uses hand-held cameras to provide a sense of immediacy.  It’s a sometimes dizzying effect and can be annoying when anyone ventures outside the house and there’s a reliance on close ups (so as to avoid any evidence of non-blackout areas in the background), but by and large it adds to the growing sense of paranoia and disquiet.  The use of Byrkit’s own home as the principal setting allows for an increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere, and he uses the space to move his characters around like pieces on a chess board.

Anyone interested in science will (hopefully) find much to like – it’s a rare movie that takes time out to explain the concept behind Schrödinger’s Cat – and there’s enough here to attract the attention of fans of cerebral dramas also.  The movie does descend into thriller territory as one character searches for a way out of their predicament, and while this does seem forced, it also adds another layer to the quandary everyone’s facing, giving rise to the question, What would you do if it was you yourself that was threatening your place in the world?

Rating: 8/10 – some narrative stumbles aside, Coherence is a complex sci-fi thriller that is as much about notions of existence as it is about the nature of reality; intelligent and gripping, this is one movie that is rigorous, inventive and when it needs to be, effortlessly chilling.

Draft Day (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

Draft Day

D: Ivan Reitman / 110m

Cast: Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Denis Leary, Frank Langella, Ellen Burstyn, Chadwick Boseman, Sean Combs, Josh Pence, Terry Crews, Arian Foster, Patrick St Esprit, Chi McBride, Tom Welling, Pat Healy, Rosanna Arquette, Sam Elliott

It’s Draft Day in the NFL and the number one pick is quarterback Bo Callahan (Pence). Cleveland Browns general manager Sonny Weaver Jr (Costner) is given the chance to have him as his first choice in the pick but he declines.  Urged by club owner Anthony Molina (Langella) to make “a splash”, Weaver changes his mind and does a deal with the Seattle Seahawks for Callahan that allows them first pick in the draft.  As the news leaks out that the deal has been done, it earns the animosity of the Browns’ Coach Penn (Leary), and defensive player Vontae Mack (Boseman).  Penn wants another player, Ray Jennings (Foster) to be picked in order to complement their existing quarterback Brian Drew (Welling).  Mack wants to play for the Browns, and he tells Weaver that picking Callahan is a bad move.

As the day carries on, Weaver is forced to confront the notion that Callahan isn’t all he’s made out to be, and that he has serious character flaws that could well cause him to be a liability down the line.  Weaver also has to contend with the news that his girlfriend, Ali (Garner), who works for the Browns as a lawyer, is pregnant.  And as if that wasn’t enough, his mother (Burstyn) arrives at the ground to scatter his father’s ashes on the training field, something that Weaver is resistant of as he had to fire his father as coach the year before.

At the first pick, Weaver surprises everybody with his first choice, and this leads to moves and counter-moves involving the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Seattle Seahawks, moves that will determine whether or not Weaver continues as the Browns’ general manager.

Draft Day - scene

An unabashed sports movie that plays out like a good old-fashioned drama laced with broad, comic elements, Draft Day is the kind of movie you can watch and just let wash over you.  It’s professionally done, with a likeable cast, an enjoyable set up, a good-natured feel to it, and easy-going direction thanks to Reitman, back on form after the regrettable No Strings Attached (2011).  It’s an easy movie to like, then, and the kind of movie that has no other agenda than to entertain its audience for a couple of hours.  In short, it’s the kind of movie that doesn’t come around very often.

The main reason Draft Day is so engaging and fun to watch is due to its performances.  Costner could probably play Sonny Weaver Jr in his sleep, and while the actor brings his usual gravitas to the dramatic scenes, he’s equally appealing (if not more so) when the script throws a comedic curve ball at him.  It’s an assured performance, Costner’s experience and acting chops perfectly suited to the role; he’s back in the kind of everyman hero role he made his own in the late Eighties/early Nineties, but older and wiser, and with less to prove (especially as an actor).  It’s good to see him back doing the kind of role he does best: being the calm at the centre of the storm, the rock that everyone can cling on to and know that they’ll be safe.  For the audience, it’s like seeing an old friend after a number of years have gone by, and picking up right where you left off.

In support, Garner is patient and compassionate, while Leary is ill-tempered and aggressive.  Both actors have roles that play to their strengths, and it’s good to see them sparring so happily with Costner, and with each other.  They may be playing familiar roles, with little variation, but it makes the audience feel comfortable; it’s reassuring in such a way that it puts a smile on the viewer’s face without them realising it.  As the Browns’ owner, Langella is appropriately supercilious, while Boseman, Pence, Welling and Foster offer various approaches to the ways in which young American men can view football as not just a game, but what gives their lives meaning.

Under Reitman’s relaxed though confident direction, the cast keep the momentum going, the movie’s rhythm never allowed to flag or stutter or the audience to lose interest.  If you’re not a fan of American Football, then some of the dialogue is going to seem like it’s spoken in a foreign language, but the script by Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman takes pains to explain the various ins and outs of the game itself and the behind the scenes machinations that make up most of what goes on on Draft Day.  It doesn’t succeed entirely, but what gets lost in the “translation” won’t impede anyone’s enjoyment of the movie.  And if it all seems a little too convoluted for its own good, then that’s just the way the NFL has set things up (so go figure).

The various subplots and storylines are all resolved with varying degrees of neatness, though this doesn’t detract from the enjoyment the movie provides, and the approach to the material – albeit lightweight and occasionally superficial – fits with the overall intended effect.  Brightly filmed, and with a serendipitous score courtesy of the ever-reliable John Debney, Draft Day succeeds in bringing back some much needed entertainment in amongst all the horror remakes, scuzzy crime thrillers and high octane superhero movies.

Rating: 8/10 – what it lacks in depth, Draft Day more than makes up for in likability; a return to old-fashioned story telling and all the better for it.

Poster of the Week – Werewolf of London (1935)

Tags

, , , ,

Werewolf of London

Werewolf of London (1935)

As Universal’s first werewolf movie – though now overshadowed by The Wolf Man (1941) – Werewolf of London is an interesting forerunner for the later series of movies, and it has its own undeniable charm.  The poster – one of several used at the time – has all the usual characteristics of a movie poster from the period: the montage of images from the movie, the garish title, principal cast names in larger print than the supporting cast, but it’s the addition of the printed warning that separates this from its peers.

Viewed nowadays, the reference to “hysterical women” would be viewed with distaste and probably, a certain amount of vehemence.  But back in 1935, these types of warnings, while not commonplace, were certainly not unknown, and this is a perfect example of the dramatic hyperbole employed.  Advising its potential audience of “the most terrifying scene ever filmed” sets the tone immediately, and while modern audiences might laugh at such a claim, contemporary viewers would have been less credulous.  Urging female viewers to close their eyes at a certain point in the movie is a master-stroke too, as it’s more than likely that curiosity will overcome any fear and they’ll watch anyway (there’s nothing like a bit of reverse psychology to bring in the audience).

The reference to “fainting spells or shocks of any kind” is almost like a challenge: we dare you to watch this scene.  It’s funny to read from the perspective of 2014, but we live in different times, and we have to remember that in 1935 the sight of Henry Hull with excessive facial hair and a jutting underbite would have been frightening to a lot of people.

As for the rest of the poster, the actors have been given an effective colour makeover, and the green tinge given to the werewolf is weirdly compelling, while the inclusion of a bat flying close to Big Ben seems to hint at another famous monster being involved, even though it’s not the case.  But it’s that warning to women that always draws the eye (and boggles the mind).

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

The Prince (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Prince, The

D: Brian A. Miller / 93m

Cast: Jason Patric, Bruce Willis, Jessica Lowndes, John Cusack, Gia Mantegna, Jeong Ji-Hoon, Johnathon Schaech, Don Harvey, Tyler J. Olson, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson

Paul (Patric), a mechanic working in a small town in Mississippi, has an only daughter, Beth (Mantegna), away at college.  She’s due home for a weekend visit but she fails to show up.  Worried that something has happened to her, Paul travels to the college and checks her room, where he finds a picture of Beth and another girl outside a bar.  He goes to the bar and in time the girl turns up.  Her name is Angela (Lowndes), and while she can’t tell Paul where Beth is, she does know that she was seeing a dealer called Eddie (Olson).  She helps him track Eddie down to New Orleans, and in the process, comes to learn that Paul isn’t just a mechanic, but that he has fighting skills she’s never seen before.

When he finds Eddie, Paul discovers that Beth has left him to go live with a more dangerous drug dealer known as the Pharmacy (Jackson).  Paul pledges to rescue her and tries to persuade Angela to go back home, but she refuses.  Meanwhile, Paul’s arrival in New Orleans is reported to ruthless crime boss Omar (Willis).  Twenty years before, Paul was responsible for the deaths of Omar’s wife and daughter.  Now, Omar sees his chance for revenge.  Paul seeks help from old friend, Sam (Cusack) while he goes to rescue Beth.  He discovers that the Pharmacy has been told by Omar to keep Paul there, but he takes Beth and escapes during the subsequent gunfight.  Back at Sam’s, and as they’re preparing to leave, Omar’s second-in-command, Mark (Ji-Hoon), ambushes them and manages to get away with Beth.  Paul follows him to Omar’s, and a final confrontation between the two.

Prince, The - scene

At ninety-three minutes, one thing that The Prince does have in its favour is a fairly short running time.  Otherwise, this is yet another heavily padded, strictly by-the-books crime thriller with an invincible hero, a bad-ass villain, and a damsel in distress. With such a predictable nature, the movie struggles from the outset to provide its audience with anything new or different, even down to the scene where Omar has an employee killed for being out of line, just so we know how bad-ass he is (the fact the employee is standing next to a pool and looks incredibly nervous is also a bit of a giveaway as to what’s going to happen).

As the titular Prince, Paul is a methodical, no-nonsense, quietly threatening ex-hitman who hasn’t lost his touch, but who is also hard to like and thanks to Patric’s portrayal and the script’s lack of humour, comes off as colourless and remote.  When he rescues Beth from the Pharmacy there’s so little emotion he might as well have been retrieving a can of peas he’d left behind at the grocery store.  Paul is a character who seems estranged from everyone except Beth, and even then he seems to be trying a little too hard, as if he can’t quite work out if he’s doing things in the right way or not.  It makes his interaction with Angela unnecessarily stilted and repetitious, and their scenes together suffer accordingly.

Paul’s determination to get Beth back is laudable, but with such a lack of emotion on his part, his efforts don’t have the resonance that even something as contrived as Taken (2008) and its two sequels have (yes, Taken 3 will be with us in 2015).  What emoting there is in the movie is left to Angela – who keeps saying how shocked she is by each turn of event or revelation – and Omar, whose need for revenge is almost pathological (though as usual, he holds off on killing Beth long enough for Paul to turn the tables on him).  Lowndes is okay, but Angela is a character that never rings true, allowing herself to go with a man she doesn’t know to New Orleans for $500, and who stays around when the bullets start flying and the bodies start piling up.  Willis plays Omar as controlled at first but soon ramps up the ham, and by the movie’s end he’s dispensed entirely with characterisation and gone completely for caricature.

With minor support from Mantegna (sidelined for most of the movie), and Cusack (winning this year’s Nicolas Cage Award for Worst Hairstyle), The Prince ticks all the boxes when it comes to low-budget movie-making, with its dull, uninspired script courtesy of Andre Fabrizio and Jeremy Passmore; poorly edited and choreographed action sequences (the showdown between Paul and Mark is the worst example); trite, repetitive dialogue; clumsy framing and photography; lacklustre direction; and the kind of approach that almost screams “Doing it purely for the money!”  Several moments are of the wince-inducing variety (e.g. Jackson’s attempts at acting), and despite all the gunplay and dead bodies, not one police officer makes an appearance at any point in the proceedings, which only serves to highlight the improbability of everything that happens.

Rating: 3/10 – a nail in the coffin of several careers (though probably not the last one), The Prince is a ham-fisted attempt at an urban western but without any of that genre’s appeal or distinctive flavour; entirely derivative and short on imagination, this is one crime thriller that can safely be avoided.

10 Reasons to Remember Richard Attenborough (1923-2014)

Tags

, , ,

As well as being one of Britain’s finest directors – Gandhi (1982), Cry Freedom (1987) et al – Richard Attenborough will be remembered for an acting career that saw him play a variety of roles in a variety of movie genres but always with an innate sense of the character, and with a selflessness that was always impressive.  Several of the movies listed below are rightly regarded as classics – what better testament to an actor who never once short-changed an audience.

Richard Attenborough 1

1 – Brighton Rock (1947)

2 – The Angry Silence (1960)

3 – The League of Gentlemen (1960)

4 – The Great Escape (1963)

5 – Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)

6 – The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

7 – The Sand Pebbles (1966)

8 – 10 Rillington Place (1971)

9 – The Chess Players (1977)

10 – Jurassic Park (1993)

Richard Attenborough 2

Starred Up (2013)

Tags

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

Starred Up

D: David Mackenzie / 106m

Cast: Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend, Sam Spruell, David Ajala, Peter Ferdinando, Anthony Welsh, David Avery, Mark Asante, Raphael Sowole, Ryan McKenna, Tommy McDonnell, Sian Breckin

Eric Love (O’Connell) is a young offender transferred to an adult prison.  With a huge chip on his shoulder and an uncompromising attitude, it’s not long before he’s antagonised one of the other inmates, Jago (Sowole), and earned the enmity of Deputy Governor Haynes (Spruell).  When a misunderstanding with a fellow inmate leads to violence, Eric is forcibly removed from D Wing and moved to solitary.  On the way he tries to avoid being beaten and finds an ally in voluntary therapist Oliver (Friend), who intervenes.  Against the advice of Haynes, and with the agreement that if Eric causes even one disturbance in his group he’s banned from any further attendance, the prison Governor (Breckin) agrees to let Oliver try and help Eric deal with his anger issues.

Matters are further complicated by the presence on the same wing of Eric’s father, Neville (Mendelsohn).  Neville is an enforcer for the wing’s top dog, Spencer (Ferdinando), and is instructed by him to make sure Eric doesn’t cause too many problems with his attitude.  Neville tells Eric to keep his nose clean and do what he’s told but he’s a poor role model, and soon becomes envious of the relationships Eric makes with Oliver and the other group members.  His resentment hinders Eric’s progress in the group; meanwhile Jago gets another inmate, O’Sullivan (McKenna) to try and kill Eric, but some of the therapy group intercede and the plan fails.  Later, when an altercation within the group happens, Haynes uses it as an excuse to have Eric removed under the terms of the agreement (even though Eric wasn’t directly involved).  O’Sullivan makes another attempt to kill Eric but is overpowered and he gives up Jago.  When Eric confronts Jago, he gives up Spencer.

This leads to Eric assaulting Spencer and Neville having mixed loyalties.  As he struggles to come to terms with being a true father for the first time, Neville discovers that Spencer has arranged for Eric to “commit suicide” while in solitary, and with Haynes’ cooperation.  With little time to lose, Neville must try and persuade Spencer to change his mind, but if he won’t, to stop his son from being killed.

Starred Up - scene

Based on screenwriter Jonathan Asser’s own experiences as a voluntary prison therapist, Starred Up is a brutal, compelling prison drama that is uncompromising, often savage, and disturbingly realistic in its portrayal of institutional abuse carried out both by prison staff and the prisoners themselves.  It’s a movie that makes no attempt to pull its punches, and it’s this determined approach that keeps the movie both gripping and horrific to watch in equal measure.

As a modern day descent into Hell, Starred Up – filmed mostly in Belfast’s notorious Crumlin Road gaol – is a harsh, merciless look at how violence begets violence and how macho posturing is as much a currency in prison as it is a state of mind.  Thanks to Asser’s impressive script, the movie is chilling in its matter-of-fact depictions of anger-fuelled bloodshed, as well as the mental cruelty prevalent (and on occasion, encouraged) within the prison system.  The worst part of it all is the complicity on both sides, with only Oliver and the inmates in his group willing to try and change things, if only for themselves.  Without this one ray of hope, the movie would be even more challenging to watch, its in-built nihilism being even more devastating to watch.

It’s a tribute both to Asser’s script and Mackenzie’s controlled, rigorous direction that the movie doesn’t descend entirely into loosely controlled anarchy, and that the relationships that develop, particularly between Eric and Neville, are as well-defined and credible as they are.  The father-son bond, so tenuous as to be almost invisible at first, slowly becomes more important to both characters, and there’s an unspoken need between them that inevitably leads to a violent confrontation.  But thanks to two remarkable performances from O’Connell and Mendelsohn, this confrontation acts as a cathartic breakthrough for both men, and allows them both to move on as the family they should be.

These two lead performances are nothing short of spectacular, O’Connell like a coiled spring, Eric’s barely suppressed anger almost threatening to consume him, but thanks to the group something he learns to control rather than be controlled by it.  It’s a breakthrough performance, an alarming, expressive, startling portrayal of a young man struggling to keep his anger and his reputation within the system from defining him.  And then there’s Mendelsohn, making Neville a chilling, rage-fuelled monster of a man, a berserker with little regard for others, a wellspring of bile, racism and thuggish behaviour who can barely contain the fury inside him.  It’s a masterful performance, and when Mendelsohn’s on screen, you can’t take your eyes off him; you just don’t know what he’s going to do next.

Ably supported by Friend as the therapist with as many issues as the men he’s trying to help, and Spruell, whose permanent sneer suggests a man who would be equally at home on either side of the fence, as well as group stand-outs Welsh and Ajala, Starred Up boasts a cast that doesn’t put a foot wrong throughout.  It’s such an accomplished ensemble that Mackenzie doesn’t seem to be directing them; instead it seems as if he’s just positioning the cameras and then sitting back (though that probably wasn’t the case).  And the camerawork is just as impressive, with several hand-held tracking shots as Eric roams around D Wing making the oppressive environment seem less confining, less restrictive.  It’s a gloomy set of interiors but the photography by Michael McDonough is richly detailed and on several occasions, beautifully framed despite the prison settings.  The editing by Nick Emerson and Jake Roberts is equally impressive: there’s not one scene that outstays its welcome, or where each element of a scene is given its due significance.

Rating: 9/10 – an effortlessly superior prison drama, Starred Up features a confident, uncompromising script, remarkable, assured direction, and a couple of lead performances that are nothing short of extraordinary; despite its grim backdrop, the movie succeeds in offering hope out of adversity and is complex, challenging viewing and all the better for it.

The Rover (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

Rover, The

D: David Michôd / 103m

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

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

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

Rover, The - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mini-Review: The Love Punch (2013)

Tags

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

Love Punch, The

D: Joel Hopkins / 94m

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

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

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

Love Punch, The - scene

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

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

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

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

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

Tags

, ,

Transformers Age of Extinction

D: Michael Bay / 165m

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

Dear Mr Bay -

Please, please, please – no more.

Regards -

thedullwoodexperiment

Poster of the Week – The Wild Bunch (1969)

Tags

, , , , ,

Wild Bunch, The

The Wild Bunch (1969)

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

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

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

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

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

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

The Hooligan Factory (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

Hooligan Factory, The

D: Nick Nevern / 90m

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

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

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

THE HOOLIGAN FACTORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sacrament (2013)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Sacrament, The

D: Ti West / 95m

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

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

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

Sacrament, The - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Terminal (2004)

Tags

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

Terminal, The

D: Steven Spielberg / 128m

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

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

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

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

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

Terminal, The - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Expendables 3 (2014)

Tags

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

Expendables 3, The

D: Patrick Hughes / 127m

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

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

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

Expendables 3, The - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mini-Review: Brick Mansions (2014)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

28616Quad_Final.indd

D: Camille Delamarre / 90m

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

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

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

Brick Mansions - scene

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

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

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

I’ll Follow You Down (2013)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

I'll Follow You Down

D: Richie Mehta / 93m

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

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

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

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

I'll Follow You Down - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tags

, , ,

Best Years of Our Lives, The

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

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

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

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

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

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

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

 

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

Tags

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

Robin Hood Prince of Thieves

D: Kevin Reynolds / 143m

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

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

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

Robin Hood Prince of Thieves - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Tags

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

Guardians of the Galaxy

D: James Gunn / 121m

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

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

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

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

Guardians of the Galaxy - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lost for Life (2013)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Lost for Life

D: Joshua Rofé / 75m

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

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

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

Lost for Life - scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tags

, , , ,

Schindler's List

Schindler’s List (1993)

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

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

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

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

Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to let me know.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 143 other followers