Transcendence (2014)

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Transcendence

D: Wally Pfister / 119m

Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Cole Hauser, Clifton Collins Jr, Cory Hardrict, Falk Hentschel, Josh Stewart, Lukas Haas, Xander Berkeley

Those of you with a good memory will recall Johnny Depp’s last sci-fi outing, the distinctly flat and underwhelming The Astronaut’s Wife (1999).  Amongst the movies in Depp’s filmography it’s a rare misstep… until now.

Here, Depp plays Dr Will Caster, a scientist investigating the possibilities surrounding artificial intelligence (AI).  He is supported by, and works with, his wife, Evelyn (Hall), and from the wider scientific community, Max Waters (Bettany) and Joseph Tagger (Freeman).  When he is shot leaving a symposium by a member (Haas) of a radical anti-AI movement, RIFT, Will receives what appears to be a non-fatal wound.  Later, he learns the bullet was coated with polonium and he has only a matter of weeks to live.

Appropriating the work of a fellow scientist, Dr Thomas Casey (Berkeley), Evelyn sets up a secret laboratory where she intends to digitise Will’s mind and connect it with a computer system, thus allowing his “consciousness” to live on after his physical death.  She’s aided by Max who has reservations about the plan; when it succeeds, and one of Will’s first requests is to be connected to the internet, Max becomes afraid of the potential danger in Will having access to every computer on the planet.  He tries to pull the plug but Evelyn stops him and forces him to leave.  Max is then kidnapped by RIFT, and their leader, Bree (Mara), decides to keep him captive until they can stop Will’s consciousness from spreading.  They arrive at the laboratory too late to stop Will connecting to the internet, and too late to stop Evelyn from escaping.

Meanwhile, Tagger is helping FBI agent Buchanan (Murphy) track down the members of RIFT.  When Will manipulates the FBI’s computer system in order to help them, Tagger also becomes worried about the possible consequences of Will’s access.  As Evelyn, under Will’s instruction, starts to oversee the building of a brand new facility in the desert town of Brightwood, RIFT inexplicably hold back from trying to sabotage it, and the FBI sit on their hands as well.  Two years later, Will has moved on to using nano-technology in his work and when a worker is badly injured, takes the opportunity to use his medical capabilities to “improve” the worker’s physical condition, even going so far as to install software in the man’s head that links him to Will.  As more and more people undergo this “corrective surgery”, RIFT and the FBI both become afraid that Will is creating an army, and decide to take steps to put an end to his new existence.  The only way they can do it?  By using a virus created by Max that should stop Will by shutting down the internet…completely.

Hopefully that (actually quite) brief synopsis should alert the potential viewer that Transcendence has a lot going on, and not all of it either clever or logical.  At the movie’s beginning, Will is a bit like an absent-minded professor, and has no interest in trying to change the world through the appliance of new technologies; that’s Evelyn’s aim.  As his metamorphosis develops and his “power” increases, he begins to do just that, using nano-technology to heal the sick and heal the planet.  All good, right?  Well yes, and therein lies one of the movie’s major problems: it’s ostensibly a thriller, and outside of the involvement of RIFT, so far the thriller elements have been sorely lacking (it’s also meant to be a romantic drama, and a cautionary tale, and a bio-horror movie as well).  Will’s adaptation of people becomes the trigger for a last quarter increase in action and spectacle that, while predictable, is unnecessary and forced (hell, it’s so forced, the FBI and RIFT practically team up to put a stop to Will’s unwanted apotheosis).

There’s also the timescale, that “two years later” mentioned before where everyone outside of Will and Evelyn sit around waiting for things to reach a point where they have to intervene, whereas before, prevention was the order of the day, both legally and illegally.  It’s also absurd to think that Max would be held captive for all this time without anyone trying to find him, but this turns out to be the case.  And with the size of the facility being built at Brightwood it’s unreasonable to think that the government or homeland security or the NSA (or someone) wouldn’t come around for a look-see at some point, but they don’t.  And it’s equally implausible that Will, even with all the access to information that he has, can create and master so many new technological advances from scratch, but he does.

As science fiction, Transcendence is woollier than most and depends on its human element to move the story forward but even there the story stumbles.  Will and Evelyn are supposed to be devoted to each other, and before Will’s death that’s evident.  But when he “transcends” he becomes more attentive and tries hard to make up for his lack of a physical presence; however, Evelyn is unhappy with this and shows her unhappiness in such a way that even Will should notice but he doesn’t.  Even when she begins to have doubts about what he’s doing he still doesn’t notice – so much for having advanced intelligence!  This, of course, leads into the main theme of the movie: can an artificially created intelligence be self aware?  (The answer, very obviously, is no.)  The movie dangles this supposed conundrum at the audience every now and again as if it bestows some depth on proceedings, but it’s a hollow, nonsensical question which, unsurprisingly, is resolved in an awkward, unsatisfactory manner.

The cast mostly go through the motions.  Depp is off his game by a long stretch, and as AI-Will is too subdued to make much of an impression, either as the saviour of the world, or its potential destroyer.  Hall’s character is irritating and the actress never quite overcomes this limitation; she also seems unsure of how Evelyn should behave from one scene to the next.  Bettany, as the movie’s voice of reason is sidelined too much by his incarceration by RIFT, and early on, plays the concerned friend with so much humility you half expect him to start wringing his hands at the prospective awfulness of what’s going to happen.  Freeman does his by-now standard wise old man routine, while Murphy has to cope with being a bystander to pretty much everything.  And Mara gives such a blunt performance she never changes her facial expression once throughout the entire movie.

Jack Paglen’s script mixes cod-science with emotional drama to only slight effect, and as filmed, has too many stretches where the movie stops dead in its tracks – which is odd, as the movie is decently paced and only occasionally strays towards boring.  The scenes between AI-Will and Evelyn quickly become repetitive, as do those featuring Tagger and Buchanan.  In the director’s chair, veteran cinematographer Pfister (making his directorial debut), has obviously kept a close eye on DoP Jess Hall, and the movie is often beautifully lensed, particularly its desert location.  He’s less confident when it comes to the cast, hence the lacklustre performances, and the script hasn’t helped him either.  There’s also an annoying score courtesy of Mychael Danna, packed with predictable cues and motifs.

Rating: 5/10 – somehow, Transcendence holds the attention throughout, even if it’s just to see how much sillier it can get; with another sci-fi misstep under his belt, let’s see if it’s another fifteen years before Depp makes another venture into the genre.

Locke (2013)

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Locke

D: Steven Knight / 85m

Cast: Tom Hardy, Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott, Ben Daniels, Tom Holland, Bill Milner

Movies where there is only one central character are notoriously difficult to pull off, and there are very few movies where there is only a single character for the audience to connect with, without anyone else impinging on the set up, either through a telephone call, or a flashback, or an imagined exchange.  There’s also the difficulty connected with keeping that one character in a single location – e.g. Colin Farrell in Phone Booth (2002), Ryan Reynolds in Buried (2010) – and Locke is no different.  When we first meet Ivan Locke (Hardy), he’s leaving work and getting into his car.  Once he’s behind the wheel we learn that he’s on his way to London (from where isn’t fully disclosed) where a woman, Bethan (Colman), he had a one night stand with is having his child.

Ivan is a man who needs to be in control.  He has a list of phone calls he has to make while he heads for London.  The people on the list includes his wife, Katrina (Wilson), his boss Gareth (Daniels), a colleague, Donal (Scott), and of course, Bethan.  In making these calls he’s looking to make sure a variety of things are taken care of: his marriage, the pouring of a major load of concrete the next morning at the building project he’s been working on, and that Bethan – who he regards as “fragile” – follows the doctors and nurses’ advice during her labour.

For Ivan, making the journey to be with Bethan is both an inconvenience and an obligation, but an obligation that he’s determined to go through with.  Bethan is in her early forties and all alone, and to an extent, Ivan feels sorry for her, but the main reason he’s determined to be at her side is due to the mistakes his father made when Ivan was born.  At odd times during the journey, Ivan talks to his father as if he were travelling with him, and he’s nothing less than vitriolic in his scorn for the man.  However, even with this, his commitment to Bethan – the crux of the movie – seems forced and doesn’t really convince.

His relationship with his wife is problematical as well.  For such a pragmatic, practical man, Ivan is sure that Katrina will forgive him as it’s “the only time” he’s ever slept with someone else, and there was a lot of booze involved.  Katrina is understandably horrified by her husband’s revelation, and while his two sons watch a football match he was expected home for downstairs, she shuts herself away upstairs trying to make sense of what Ivan’s saying, and what she should do next.  Ivan’s naiveté is at odds with his confidence in other aspects of his life, though whether he knows Katrina might leave him is open to question, and even when he speaks to his sons (Holland, Milner) he maintains a positive outlook that he can’t be sure of.

But Ivan’s personal issues take a back seat to his determination to ensure that the pour planned for the next morning goes ahead as arranged.  Unable to be there in person he entrusts the details – including checking rebars, the mix, road closures – to subordinate Donal.  At first, Donal is petrified of the responsibility but through a mix of cajolement and bullying Ivan persuades him to see things through.  At the same time he fields calls from his boss, Gareth (called Bastard in his phone’s contact list), who has been forced by Ivan’s unexpected absence to inform their bosses in Chicago.  Ivan expects to be fired, but he has decided to ensure the pour goes ahead without a hitch irrespective of his bosses’ decision, and as a matter of personal pride.  He keeps in touch with Donal throughout the journey, and as problems arise, coaxes Donal through each one until they’re dealt with.

Locke is a difficult movie to categorise.  Ostensibly it’s a drama about one man’s attempts to deal with a crisis of conscience, and there are certain thriller elements, but it’s also an emotional roller coaster ride as each time Ivan’s phone rings the audience is on tenterhooks as to what’s coming next.  It’s this involvement that helps the movie tremendously.  As conceived by writer/director Steven Knight, Ivan Locke is a hard man to empathise with, and spending almost an hour and a half with him isn’t easy.  His insistence on being with Bethan makes no real sense, and the justification for it – not repeating the sins of his father – feels arch and ill-conceived.  His devotion to the pour shows him at his most animated and motivated, while his handling of the calls to and from Katrina are conducted as if he were dealing with someone he doesn’t know (or maybe even care about).  He’s also unable to reassure Bethan on anything but a superficial level, and is dismissive of her with the hospital staff.

As portrayed by Hardy, Ivan’s dour exterior and closed-off emotions are effectively portrayed.  Adopting a soft Welsh accent, Hardy is hypnotic, and while he’s not on screen the entire time – Knight intersperses shots of the motorways Ivan travels along with interior shots looking out as well as Ivan shot from different angles – his performance is a bravura one, with not a false note throughout.  Colman and Wilson offer solid support, but it’s Scott who wins the vocal plaudits, Donal being a memorable creation all by himself (look out for the conversation about cider).  In the director’s chair, Knight adds a kineticism to the journey that grabs the audience and never lets go, but can’t quite make up visually for the contradictions and anomalies in Ivan’s character.

Rating: 7/10 – at times gripping, but with a worrying tendency to underplay its main character’s reluctance to engage emotionally, Locke is often tense and nerve-wracking; a shame then that Ivan Locke is not someone you’d any more time with than necessary.

 

Divergent (2014)

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Divergent

D: Neil Burger / 139m

Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Kate Winslet, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoë Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer

The first of four movies adapted from the novels by Veronica Roth, Divergent is yet another dystopian vision of the future as seen through the eyes of a young adult, this time, Beatrice Prior (Woodley).  Beatrice lives in a partly desolate version of Chicago that has seen its social structure reorganised so that people live in factions.  These factions determine the kind of life they lead and their social responsibilities.  Beatrice and her family, father Andrew (Goldwyn), mother Natalie (Judd) and brother Caleb (Elgort), live in the Abnegation faction.  Abnegation is about being selfless and helping others including giving food to the factionless (or the homeless); they are also the ruling government.  At sixteen, Beatrice and Caleb have to decide if they want to stay with Abnegation, or join one of the other factions: Erudite (science and teaching), Candor (unable to lie, often lawyers), Amity (farmers, nurses, artists who also favour peace), and Dauntless (brave and fearless and despite the apparent lack of crime, the city’s peacekeepers if needed).

Beatrice undergoes a test to see which faction she would most fit in with, but it is inconclusive.  At the choosing ceremony, Caleb opts for Erudite, and Beatrice for Dauntless (this also means neither of them can see their parents again).  Beatrice begins her training with Dauntless, and meets instructors Eric (Courtney), and Four (James).  At first, she struggles to make the first cut, but with Four’s support and encouragement she makes it through.  As time goes on, Beatrice – now calling herself Tris – learns that her test being inconclusive means she is ‘divergent’, someone who is able to encompass the traits of each faction and effectively “think for themselves”.  Divergents are viewed as a threat to society and are disposed of when discovered.  With the second stage of her training highlighting Tris’s abilities more and more, it becomes increasingly difficult for her to avoid detection, but with Four’s help, she passes the final test.

Throughout there have been rumours of a government takeover by Erudite, who view Abnegation as untrustworthy and duplicitous.  Erudite’s leader, Jeanine Matthews (Winslet), has co-opted the Dauntless leadership into her plan; she’s also created a serum that will dupe the Dauntless into believing they are taking part in a simulation exercise when in fact they’ll be killing the members of Abnegation.  Being immune to the serum, Tris – with Four’s help – has to find a way to stop the coming massacre.

From the start, Divergent falters by staying faithful to the novel’s vision of Chicago’s new social order.  The factions are a ridiculous concept, ill-thought out and impossible to justify both thematically and dramatically.  The idea that restricting free will and promoting conformity within such narrow confines, as well as rejecting the nuclear family, is so strained and untenable it’s to the movie’s credit that it doesn’t seek to explain or endorse it.  Instead, though, the concept sits there throughout, reminding us at every turn just how unlikely it all is.  (Though if ever a social order needed tearing down, this one fits the bill completely.)

With such a huge obstacle to try and overcome, Divergent never really gets off the ground, either as dystopian fable or cautionary science fiction.  Tris is a sympathetic main character, and without her the movie would be hard to watch, as most of the other characters operate almost independently of both the plot and each other.  Motivations are rote, and behaviours change largely without explanation – look out for Peter (Teller), a villain for ninety-five per cent of the movie, right until one of the final shots – while Tris’s family are used more as a plot device than as an emotional focal point.  There’s also the budding romance between Tris and Four, played out with so little deviation from formula that you could cut and paste them into any number of other movies and not notice the difference.

Where the movie does score points is in its creation of the world that Tris inhabits, with convincing differences between the locations of the factions – Abnegation is grey and nondescript, Erudite is futuristic and glamorous – and the semi-ravaged Chicago environs hinting at a more recent, more low-key war (a visit to a ruined fairground is a highlight).  There’s a pleasing mix of high and low-tech weaponry, and the various fight scenes are unfussy and effective (though Tris does seem to master things almost overnight once the plot needs her to).  Overall, Divergent is a movie with a strong visual style and the photography by Alwin H. Küchler is surprisingly fluid and well-framed for a movie with so many static, dialogue-heavy moments.  Neil Burger’s direction can’t quite keep a grip on the pace of the movie and the last thirty minutes feel rushed in comparison to what has gone before, but otherwise it’s a solid piece of work given the limitations of the material.

However, this is Woodley’s movie, pure and simple, a star-making turn that takes the promise she showed in The Descendants (2011) and validates that promise completely.  Wrestling with an awkwardly motivated character, Woodley takes Tris in hand and makes her truly ‘divergent’, displaying a range that fleshes out the character with unassuming ease.  (Tris does remain under-developed however, and it will be interesting where Woodley is able to take her – and how effectively – in the sequels.)  Woodley is a confident young actress and she deals persuasively with what is as much a physically demanding role as an emotional one.

Sadly, the rest of the cast don’t fare as well, with only James given more than a passing nod towards a fully-fledged character.  Courtney, Stevenson and Teller are wasted, while Judd and Goldwyn provide a minimum of parental guidance (and plot exposition) before being sidelined.   Kravitz and Elgort create new shades of bland (though to be fair, that’s largely down to the characters, and not them as actors), and even Winslet – usually convincing in whatever role she takes on – fails to add any depth to her character and is here reduced to the kind of sub-standard villain you’d expect in a cheap James Bond knock-off.

Rating: 5/10 – a bizarre hotchpotch of ideas about social programming, Divergent never overcomes the faults of its source material; fans of The Hunger Games looking for an interim fix before Mockingjay Part 1 will be disappointed, while newcomers who haven’t read the book will wonder what all the fuss is about.

Geography Club (2013)

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Geography Club

D: Gary Entin / 80m

Cast: Cameron Deane Stewart, Justin Deeley, Andrew Caldwell, Meaghan Martin, Allie Gonino, Ally Maki, Nikki Blonsky, Alex Newell, Teo Olivares, Ana Gasteyer, Marin Hinkle, Scott Bakula

It’s a sad fact that even today, with society supposedly more tolerant, and understanding, of different sexual orientations that a movie such as Geography Club can still be relevant in addressing the issue of homophobia.  Set in Goodkind High School – a misnomer if ever there was one – the movie begins with Russell arranging to meet a guy he’s met online.  He’s nervous, and unsure of his sexuality, but the meet is mainly a test of his feelings.  At the park he bumps into fellow high schooler Kevin (Deeley), and when Kevin walks away after an awkward conversation, Russell realises it was Kevin he was due to meet.

Later, on a school field trip, Russell and Kevin get to know each other better and one night they kiss.  The kiss is witnessed by Min (Maki), a fellow student.  Back at Goodkind, Min leaves Russell a message to meet her in one of the classrooms after school the next day.  Worried that she plans to blackmail him and Kevin, Russell goes to the classroom, and finds not only Min, but also Terese (Blonsky), Min’s partner, and Ike (Newell).  All three are gay and have formed the Geography Club in order to provide support for each other.  Min wants Russell to join them, but at first he refuses.  However, he goes back the next day, and in time becomes a member of the club.

Running parallel to all this are the efforts of his best friend Gunnar (Caldwell) to go out with Kimberly (Gonino), the object of Gunnar’s not inconsiderable lust.  While Russell tries to maintain a clandestine relationship with Kevin (who’s the star player on the school football team), his friendship with Gunnar threatens to fragment altogether, culminating in a disastrous weekend trip to Kimberly’s folks’ summer place.  With Gunnar counting on Russell’s support, his unwillingness to pair off with Kimberly’s friend Trish (Martin) leads to Russell being outed at school.  Determined not to let himself be categorised so unfairly, he feels it’s time for the Geography Club to go public.

As an expose of what it’s like to be a teenager and either gay or lesbian, Geography Club falls a little short in its intentions, taking a serious subject – from the bestselling book by Brent Hartinger – and often undercutting that seriousness by placing the emphasis on humour, or by adopting a superficial approach to the material.  While the movie looks at ostracism, peer pressure, sexism, bullying, parental expectations, personal freedoms, teenage sexuality and its potential pitfalls, the perils of someone trying to find their place in the world, and the difficulty in being true to yourself (if you’re even sure what that means), this is all perhaps too much for Geography Club to address properly and with the right amount of attention for each issue.

Russell’s struggle is initially with his uncertainty about being gay, even after he and Kevin kiss.  But Min’s “intervention” has the effect of deciding the issue for him, and the rest of the movie settles for the inevitable how-long-will-it-be-before-the-main-character-is-honest-with-everyone? approach so prevalent in this type of movie.  As a result, Russell is forced to hide his true feelings for fear of being found out; he also takes part in bullying another student, Brian (Olivares), and with barely a moment’s hesitation (it’s a scene that involves Brian being humiliated in front of everyone in the school cafeteria, and yet Russell and his “friends” from the football team get away with it completely; there’s no punishment for their behaviour at all, one of the weirder instances that pop up throughout the movie).  And Russell would rather upset his best friend instead of trusting Gunnar with the knowledge that he’s gay.  With the movie changing focus so often, it’s hard to work out if there’s a main point trying to be made – be nice to gay people? bullying is an awful thing to do? friendships should be more important than emotional self-doubt?

The relationships in the movie range from the non-existent (Russell’s father is referred to but never seen, as if the family dynamic that would need to be addressed by his being gay was one issue too many for the filmmakers) to the predictable (Gunnar accepts Russell’s being gay without batting an eyelid).  Kevin is the jock who won’t commit to being homosexual because it would ruin his need to be “normal” (but he still wants to see Russell at the same time); Min and Terese appear more like lipstick lesbians than a real couple; Trish’s predatory attempts at making out with Russell are badly handled – and misconceived – considering her apparent experience with other guys; and Brian readily forgives Russell for his involvement in the cafeteria incident (but only after Russell is outed).

With the characters behaving either too predictably, or in ways that serve to advance the script rather than giving them some much-needed depth, the cast are constantly in danger of having their performances derailed by Edmund Entin’s lightweight script and Gary Entin’s overstretched direction.  Blonsky is wasted in a role that either has her playing the guitar or looking cynically at everyone else, while Martin is saddled with a one-note character and no chance of making Trish any or more interesting.  Deeley has less to do than most but what he does have to do is repetitive, and Kevin is so selfish and callow you hope he and Russell don’t end up together.  With a humorous turn from Gasteyer as an oddball teacher, and Caldwell stealing the movie as a desperate virgin (he’s like a young Jack Black at times), it’s left to Stewart to keep the audience’s attention and provide the sympathetic character the audience needs to make it through.  Fortunately he does just enough to engage our sympathies, but it’s a close run thing, and as expected, once Russell is outed, he becomes less annoying as well.

Rating: 6/10 – not quite as involving as was hoped for, perhaps, but still a pleasant enough way to spend eighty minutes, provided you have a tolerance for less than convincing character motivation; a decent enough effort, and a worthy subject matter, but too lacking in real drama to make much of an impact.

The Haunting of Harry Payne (2014)

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Haunting of Harry Payne, The

aka Evil Never Dies

D: Martyn Pick / 73m

Cast: Tony Scannell, Graham Cole, Anouska Mond, Fliss Walton, Katy Manning, P.H. Moriarty, Neil Maskell, John Mangan, Louis Selwyn

These days, British horror – Hammer’s recent resurgence aside – is almost entirely the preserve of low-budget filmmakers.  Within the broad spectrum of horror movies that are being made, there is a sub-genre involving a rural setting and a lot of blood-letting.  The Haunting of Harry Payne fits the mould quite nicely, and adds a gangster back story for its troubled title character.  It’s an awkward mash-up, but it is at least an attempt to do something a little different, even if the end results are as unstable as the movie’s chief villain.

Harry Payne (Scannell) is released from prison after serving ten years for the murder of his friend and gang boss, Eugene McCann (Moriarty).  He leaves London for the Norfolk countryside and the sleepy village of Rayleton, where he is the new owner of the pub.  He’s also able to visit his wife, Susan (Manning), who lives at a nearby sanitarium.  On his first night in Rayleton a young woman is brutally killed and dismembered.  Payne is immediately accused of the crime by Detective Inspector Bracken (Cole) who knows about Payne’s gangster past.  Along with Detective Sergeant Churchill (Walton), Bracken does his best to implicate Payne in the murder but doesn’t even have circumstantial evidence to proceed, just an intense dislike for Payne and his history.  When another murder occurs, Payne becomes embroiled in both the murders and the local legend of a Lady in White, a ghostly apparition that may or may not be responsible for the deaths.

To complicate matters, Payne has violent headaches that leave him with no memory of what he’s done, and flashbacks to his days working for McCann.  McCann was an extremely vicious gangster with a penchant for torture and cold-blooded murder.  This back story impacts on the events at Rayleton in a surprising fashion and leads to revelations that affect Payne and his wife, Bracken and Churchill and local occult store owner, Angela (Mond).  There’s a further twist to proceedings which I won’t spoil by revealing here, but it adds a little depth to the storyline, and gives Payne an extra layer of characterisation.

From the outset, The Haunting of Harry Payne shows evidence of its low-budget origins and continues to do so throughout.  The flashbacks to Payne working with McCann are shot in large, open warehouse spaces that feature little or no props or set design.  The roads outside Rayleton are actually the same road through the woods each time, plus the same village road is used (but is shot from different angles).  There’s too much footage of a predatory presence prowling through the woods at ankle height, replaying the roving camerawork from The Evil Dead (1983) and dozens of other horror movies from the last thirty years.  And the gore effects are reduced to the results or after affects of an attack, making the various blood spurts that are seen almost abstract in their presentation.  The painfully short running time is another clear indicator of the movie’s low budget, though it does mean that the movie doesn’t outstay its (potential) welcome.

The script, by Mangan (who also appears as pub manager Tark), packs a lot in, but sacrifices characterisation and effective dialogue for a melange of ideas and plot contrivances in an effort to hold the audience’s attention.  Events happen quickly, almost overlapping themselves at times, with Payne striving to make sense of what’s going on, and in particular, how the Lady in White fits into everything.  The filmmakers’  ambition should be rewarded; however, in its execution the movie falls flat, and it’s like watching an am-dram attempt at making a gangster/horror movie.

Director Martyn Pick (better known as an animator), fails to rein in his cast’s preference for hamming it up – Moriarty and Cole are the worst offenders while Manning misjudges her role completely – and his inexperience leaves the movie looking distinctly ramshackle and visually unappealing.  He’s aided by John Fensom’s scattershot editing – some scenes look and feel like they’ve been taken from a work print – and an overbearing score courtesy of Alex Ball.  As Payne, Scannell looks uncomfortable throughout, as if he’s having second thoughts about being in the movie, and leaves what little acting kudos there is to Mond, who takes a severely malnourished character and makes more of her than would seem possible from the script.

With so much of contemporary British horror lying in the doldrums, The Haunting of Harry Payne could have been a welcome addition to the rural terror sub-genre, but its botched attempts at creating menace, and its awkward shoe-horning of McCann’s evil nature into the scheme of things serve only to show – once again – that horror is incredibly difficult to get right, and especially on a low budget.

Rating: 3/10 – with so much crammed in, it’s no surprise that The Haunting of Harry Payne lacks focus, or that it often looks rushed; at best an interesting failure, at worst a terrible mess that ought to be missed off everyone’s CV.

The Legend of Hercules (2014)

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Legend of Hercules, The

D: Renny Harlin / 99m

Cast: Kellan Lutz, Scott Adkins, Gaia Weiss, Roxanne McKee, Liam Garrigan, Liam McIntyre, Rade Serbedzija, Johnathon Schaech, Luke Newberry, Kenneth Cranham

The ongoing (but occasional) resurgence of sword-and-sandal movies in recent years, since 2002′s Gladiator, has been a largely disappointing event, with the movies concentrating more on the visuals than on coherent storylines (in particular, see anything with the word Titans in the title).  There’s another version of the Hercules story coming later this year starring Dwayne Johnson; on this evidence it shouldn’t be any worse (but if you watch the trailer you might not be so sure).

As an origin story, The Legend of Hercules makes two decisions at the start that affect the rest of the movie.  One, it introduces the villain of the piece, King Amphitryon (Adkins), as a power-hungry despot eager to conquer the lands around his own kingdom, no matter how peaceful they are; and Two, has conquered Queen Alcmene (McKee) pray to Hera for a deliverer from Amphitryon’s cruelty.  Alcmene has a second child, courtesy of a wild five minutes with Zeus, and so, we fast forward twenty years later, to meet grown up Alcides (Lutz), officially Amphitryon’s second son, and unaccountably blond where Alcmene and Amphitryon, and his “brother” Iphicles (McGarrigan) are all dark-haired.  Alcides is in love with Greek princess Hebe (Weiss) but she is to be betrothed to Iphicles.  They try to run away but are caught, and Alcides is sent on a certain death mission led by Sotiris (McIntyre).  The two men survive but their captor, Tarak (Schaech) sells the them into slavery to Lucius (Cranham) and they are forced to take part in gladiatorial games.

Meanwhile, Hebe and Alcmene believe Alcides is dead, and the planned marriage is still going ahead, even though Iphicles knows Hebe doesn’t love him.  Back in the slave pens, Alcides and Sotiris convince Lucius to let them compete in a gladiator contest in Greece where two men face six undefeated gladiators, and if they win, they also win their freedom.  Sotiris is injured though, and Alcides decides to fight the gladiators by himself (you’ll be surprised to learn he wins quite comfortably).  Alcides and Sotiris return home and begin gathering supporters from amongst the people and the King’s army in order to overthrow Amphitryon.  Alcmene dies at Amphitryon’s hand, but not before he learns of Alcides’ true name, and his true father (and at the same time, Alcides, who has gone by the name of Hercules since being captured by Tarak, learns about his true father too).  Captured (again), Hercules calls on his father to aid him and he escapes, regroups his followers, and marches on Amphitryon’s citadel.

From the start, The Legend of Hercules is weighed down by unwieldy, cod-ancient dialogue, and the kind of plotting that is like wading through treacle.  The script, by Sean Hood and Daniel Giat, is a mismatch of cliché and contrivance that makes no concession to logic or even sense.  Scenes come and go in a perfunctory manner without ever making an impression, or adding any depth to the proceedings.  And the whole thing seems to have been written at speed, without any concern as to how it would all flow together.  It’s a lazy piece of screenwriting, that does just enough to get by, but which fails on almost every level to achieve any kind of dramatic intensity.  A case in point: when Hercules learns of his mother’s death, he might as well have been told the 2-for-1 offer on sandals at the local market has ended for all the emotion the scene imparts.

But there’s an even greater problem, previously mentioned above: the two early decisions made by the movie.  Twenty years on from Amphitryon’s all-conquering days overthrowing kingdoms left, right and centre, he seems to have been quiet on the battlefront since then, with no further mention of empire building or even domestic oppression.  So, where’s the need for Hercules to overthrow his “father’s” tyranny?  It’s all in the past, so the movie has to create a need for Amphitryon’s removal (and which proves as banal as possible: the need to protect the alliance brought about by Iphicles’ marriage to Hebe).  And if Alcmene thought the problem was so bad as to seek divine intervention, why did she go along with the whole “child of Zeus” arrangement?  Didn’t she realise it would mean years of further tyranny before Hercules was of an age to do anything about it?

With these and other fundamental questions – why does Tarak sell Hercules and Sotiris into slavery when he’s been paid to kill everyone? (Answer: because the screenwriters couldn’t come up with a decent reason why not) – left unexplored or explained, The Legend of Hercules becomes a silly, lame attempt to revisit one of the most popular of the Greek myths, and in the process, undermines it completely.  The cast, perhaps sensing there’s no way of retrieving any dignity from the demands of the script, bravely do their best but most, including McGarrigan and Weiss, don’t even try and phone in their performances (perhaps from another movie).  Adkins is no one’s idea of a good actor and he reinforces that opinion here, while Lutz shows his immaturity and lack of experience are obstacles he’s yet to overcome.  (Only Cranham, taking on Oliver Reed’s role in Gladiator, makes any kind of impact, but sadly, he’s not on screen enough.)

However… the visuals are impressive, even if some of the depth perception is a little skewed at times (the Greek arena – just how big is it when seen against the rest of the city?), and Harlin is the kind of hack who knows how to shoot an action scene, so there’s always something to hold the attention when you’re not cringing at the dialogue.  But ultimately, these are aspects to the production that aren’t strong enough to make up for all the rest of the movie’s shortcomings.

Rating: 4/10 – lamentable and turgid are just two words the screenwriters should have applied to their own script, but didn’t; a woeful (hoped-for) money maker that has all the appeal of a village talent show, and heaps derision on itself without anyone else needing to help.

The Inner Circle (1946)

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Inner Circle, The

D: Philip Ford / 57m

Cast: Adele Mara, Warren Douglas, William Frawley, Ricardo Cortez, Virginia Christine, Will Wright, Dorothy Adams

When private eye Johnny Strange (Douglas) wants a new secretary, he calls an agency and explains what he needs: “a blonde, beautiful, between 22-28, unmarried, with skin you love to touch, and a heart you can’t”.  His wish is granted immediately in the form of Geraldine Travis (Mara), who appears before he can finish the call, and effectively gives herself the job.  Overwhelmed and on the back foot from the moment she appears, Strange agrees to her employment just as the phone rings.  Geraldine deals with the call which is from a Spanish woman, asking for Strange to meet her later that evening; she has something very important she needs to talk to him about.

Strange meets the woman, who insists on hiding her identity behind a thick black veil.  They drive to her home where Strange is surprised to find the body of a man who’s been shot dead.  The Spanish woman attempts to bribe Strange into dealing with the body her way but when he declines and begins to call the police, she knocks him unconscious.  At this point, the movie reveals a major twist in the plot, and it becomes as much a whodunit as a whydunit?  The police, headed by ultra-suspicious Detective Lieutenant Webb (Frawley), think Strange killed the man – revealed as notorious gossip columnist Anthony Fitch – but with little evidence to secure a conviction, and the testimony of his new secretary keeping him out of jail, Strange resolves to find the killer and clear his name completely.

It soon becomes evident that Fitch wasn’t well-liked, and a number of people had motive and opportunity: there’s club owner Duke York (Cortez); singer Rhoda Roberts (Christine); Fitch’s housekeeper Emma Wilson (Adams); and Fitch’s gardener Henry Boggs (Wright).  Each behaves suspiciously but each denies any involvement in Fitch’s murder, even though they all saw him on the day he was killed.  When Strange learns that Fitch was about to reveal somebody’s big secret in his next radio broadcast, the why becomes clear but the who remains a mystery (unless you’ve seen some of these kind of movies before).

The Inner Circle has a jaunty, often comic feel to it that is nicely underplayed by its cast, and there are some great one-liners (mostly at Strange’s expense).  The humorous tone softens and complements the mystery elements, while the drama spins out at a surprisingly leisurely pace given the movie’s short running time.  It’s an easy movie to watch, and has a distinct charm that lifts it above the usual fare delivered by Republic Pictures during the Forties.  Mara and Douglas are a good match for each other, displaying a real chemistry together, and adding a spark to their scenes that benefits the movie throughout.  The mystery itself is hardly original, and there are moments when the audience’s credulity is strained as Strange makes yet another goof (is he really as good a private investigator as he thinks he is?), but taken as a whole, The Inner Circle succeeds with defiant ebullience.

What helps is it’s determination not to take the easy route.  So much of the movie – courtesy of Dorrell and Stuart E. McGowan’s fractious screenplay – turns on a willingness to upset its audience’s preconceptions.  The twist revealed after Strange is knocked unconscious gives a great indication of how slyly subversive the rest of the movie will turn out to be, with the murder complicated by side orders of blackmail, theft and unexpected revelations.  It all culminates in a radio broadcast where all the suspects are persuaded to play themselves in reenactments of key moments from earlier in the plot.  It’s like an Agatha Christie homage but with extra attitude in the staging and playing.

The cast all give good performances – Wright is a particular joy as the irascible gardener – and Ford’s direction shows a firm grasp of the material.  With its short running time and pleasant air, The Inner Circle deserves a wider audience than it’s likely to get these days.  As an example from the days when Poverty Row often meant appalling sets and even worse acting and/or directing, this is one movie that bucks the trend, and does it with a wonderful lack of concern.

Rating: 7/10 – often surprisingly witty and with a slightly eccentric approach to telling its story, The Inner Circle is a delight from beginning to end; proof as well that even Republic could grind out a winner every now and then.

Scooby-Doo! WrestleMania Mystery (2014)

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Scooby Doo! WrestleMania Mystery

D: Brandon Vietti / 83m

Cast: Frank Welker, Mindy Cohn, Grey DeLisle, Matthew Lillard, Charles S. Dutton, Mary McCormack, Bumper Robinson, John Cena, Vince McMahon

Scooby-Doo’s animated features are now in their thirty-fifth year, and by this year’s end there will be thirty-five movies in the series.  With three other features still to come this year, Scooby Doo! WrestleMania Mystery is number thirty-two, and while you might expect a drop off in quality after so long, and while the movie isn’t one of the best in the series, it’s still entertaining enough.

Strange things are occurring at WWE City – naturally – and they involve a ghost bear that is hell-bent on sabotaging the WWE facilities.  When Scooby wins a video game competition where the prize is a trip to WWE City and tickets to WrestleMania, he and Shaggy persuade the rest of the gang (who are less than enthusiastic) to go with them.  112 miles later, the gang arrive at WWE City only to run off the road avoiding a raccoon.  They’re helped by John Cena, and two WWE employees, Cookie (Dutton) and his nephew Ruben (Robinson).  Cookie used to be a wrestler until an injury cut short his career; Ruben is an IT wizard but wants to be a WWE superstar.  An encounter with local landowner Bayard (Corey Burton), who is against the amount of land that WWE City has taken over, also reveals more about the ghost bear.

With WrestleMania just two days away, WWE boss Mr McMahon shows the gang the WWE Championship belt, made from gold and inlaid with precious jewels.  Kept under guard and with a sophisticated security system in place to deter any thieves, the belt is regarded as completely safe from harm by WWE head of security Ms Richards (McCormack).  However, later that night, the belt is stolen and CCTV footage shows that Scooby-Doo is the thief.  Given a chance to prove Scooby’s innocence – or at best, unwitting involvement – the rest of the gang have until the start of WrestleMania to find the real culprit or Scooby and Shaggy will have to fight Kane in the opening match.  In the process they find out more about the ghost bear, discover a plan to detonate an EMP device during the show, receive the help of various WWE superstars including the reticent Sin Cara, and hatch a plan to find the real culprit.  But unfortunately for Scooby and Shaggy, not in time to avoid facing Kane…

The combination of Scooby-Doo and WWE is, in some ways, an obvious choice, with the larger than life exploits of the WWE superstars providing a good backdrop for the adventures of Scooby and the gang.  With the participation of a number of wrestlers – Cena, The Miz, Triple H, AJ Lee, Kane, Brodus Clay, Santino Marella, as well as commentator Michael Cole – Scooby Doo! WrestleMania Mystery strives to give equal screen time to both camps and thanks to Michael Ryan’s adroit screenplay, succeeds with a minimum of effort.  The mystery itself isn’t too difficult to work out – though anyone expecting the villain to be revealed as Mr McMahon has probably watched too many episodes of Raw and Smackdown! – and the villain’s motive is entirely obvious, but this is a Scooby-Doo movie and as anyone who’s watched even one other in the series, or any of the TV shows will know, these aspects are entirely irrelevant.  As always, it’s the antics that Scooby and the gang get up to that are the focus, and here, Shaggy and Scooby’s love of WWE is lampooned affectionately and provides most of the laughs.

The usual predictable nature of things still allows for some fun moments: a running gag involving The Miz, working out which WWE superstar is which (Triple H looks nothing like himself), Cena being able to speak luchador, a cave chase, and Shaggy persuading Fred (Welker), Velma (Cohn) and Daphne (DeLisle) to go to WWE City by showing them photos of some of the embarrassing costumes he and Scooby have had to wear over the years (complete with appropriately alliterative titles for the cases they relate to).  The wrestling matches are well choreographed, and include a few moves that would be cool to see attempted for real, and the ghost bear is an unlikely, but impressive, antagonist.

As expected, the principal voice cast give good performances – as well they should with the number of times they’ve done this – and Dutton adds a clearly defined level of sadness and regret to his role.  Of the wrestlers, only Cena is given more than a few lines to cope with, while McMahon reprises his brash TV character with mixed results (sometimes he doesn’t even sound like himself).  Brandon Vietti’s direction is confident though at times a little too sincere in its depiction of the WWE universe, the animation is of an acceptable standard but rarely breaks free of its own restrictions, and the songs added here and there are sadly annoying rather than an effective addition to the proceedings.  And the times spent on the production is given away by the prominence given to Sin Cara; now his current status is very much that of a second-string wrestler.

Rating: 6/10 – a middling entry in the series with its predictable plot proving particularly weak; a mash-up that still works by and large, but which will probably please fans of WWE more than those of Scooby-Doo.

Mini-Review: Bad Country (2014)

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Bad Country

D: Chris Brinker / 95m

Cast: Matt Dillon, Willem Dafoe, Neal McDonough, Amy Smart, Tom Berenger, Chris Marquette, Don Yesso, John Edward Lee, Alex Solowitz, Christopher Denham, Bill Duke

At times, Bad Country seems like an Eighties throwback, a Walking Tall-type movie that swaps Tennessee for Louisiana, and Buford Pusser for Willem Dafoe’s detective Bud Carter.  Its production design and filming style is reminiscent of other movies from that era, and while that’s no bad thing by itself, this grounding doesn’t add anything to the movie, or make it stand out.

With an opening statement that gives the impression the movie is based on a true story (but it’s not), Bad Country sees Carter bust a small-time gang of thieves.  Their arrest leads him to Jesse Weiland (Dillon).  Weiland is a safecracker-cum-enforcer for local syndicate kingpin Lutin Adams (Berenger); he also has a wife, Lynn (Smart) and baby son.  Adams is in Carter’s sights and he turns Jesse, aided by Jesse’s animosity towards Adams for having his brother killed, and his need to provide for Lynn and the baby (which will be difficult if he ends up in jail).  With the Feds, represented by rookie Fitch (Marquette), muscling in on Carter’s operation, the original plan is hijacked and things quickly go sour, with further loss of life on both sides.  When an attempt is made on Weiland’s life, he goes after Adams himself.

There’s little that’s fresh or new here, and the movie trundles along in fits and starts and never really springs to life.  The plot is perfunctory and often banal, while Chris Brinker’s direction is drab and uninvolving.  The cast do their best – Dafoe gives his usual impassioned performance, despite the material – but Smart and McDonough are given short shrift, while Dillon often seems on auto-pilot.  The Baton Rouge locations are well-used but not enough to make them a feature, and there’s one too many scenes that fade to black, as if those scenes should have continued a bit longer but the script didn’t know how to manage it.  There’s plenty of gunfire, and a final shootout that lacks energy and focus when it should be thrilling.

Rating: 5/10 – more ho-hum than humdinger, Bad Country plods along without ever really getting going; set against other, more recent crime thrillers, it lacks more than most, and the Eighties setting ends up being of no benefit at all.

The Right Kind of Wrong (2013)

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Right Kind of Wrong, The

D: Jeremiah Chechik / 97m

Cast: Ryan Kwanten, Sara Canning, Ryan McPartlin, Kristen Hager, James A. Woods, Raoul Bhaneja, Jennifer Baxter, Will Sasso, Catherine O’Hara, Mateen Devji, Maya Samy

The loser with a heart of gold is a staple of romantic comedies, but usually the loser is looking to better himself or is struggling to make it out of the dead-end job that is getting them down.  They meet the girl of their dreams, spend ninety minutes (or more) trying to win them over (often without the girl knowing they’re even trying), adopt a self-deprecating yet hopefully endearing approach, and wait for the miracle moment when the girl finally realises she’s in love with them and they can head off into the sunset together.  But what if the loser was happy with their dead-end job?  And what if the loser isn’t looking to better himself, but has tried and is okay with his lack of success?  And what if the girl of their dreams isn’t going to realise she’s in love with them… probably?

This is the twist that makes The Right Kind of Wrong one of the more enjoyable romantic comedies of recent years.  The loser in this movie is Leo (Kwanten), a would-be writer whose refusal to change even one word of his first novel has left him without a book deal, and has stopped him from writing anything else.  When his wife, Julie (Hager) tells him that she’s written a blog about him detailing as all his faults – called Why You Suck – and that it’s becoming wildly popular, Leo is bemused but unfazed.  His attitude changes, though, when she leaves him.  Deflated and miserable, he stays at home watching Julie continue to character assassinate him in TV interviews, until one day he goes outside and sees Colette (Canning).  He’s immediately attracted to her, but there’s a problem: she’s in her bridal gown and minutes away from getting married.

Undeterred, Leo attends the ceremony and sees her marry handsome lawyer Danny (McPartlin).  He also meets Colette’s estranged mother, Tess (O’Hara).  They hit it off and Tess takes Leo to the reception.  There, Leo gets a chance to talk to Colette and wastes no time in telling her she shouldn’t have got married, and that she should be with him.  Colette is less than amused by Leo’s nerve and he’s thrown out.  Still not put off, Leo begins finding out more about Colette, and keeps “accidentally” bumping into her in town.  He attends the tours she conducts around the local area, sees her stealing a newspaper on a regular basis, and enlists the help of his workmate Mandeep (Bhaneja) in letting Colette see he’s more than just a stalker.  When Danny begins to worry about Leo’s influence on Colette, things take a more dramatic turn, and a work-related threat leaves Leo unable to continue following his heart, and Colette.

The central conceit of The Right Kind of Wrong – that the loser is happy with their lot and doesn’t care what people think about them – helps the movie tremendously, providing the basis for some unexpected dialogue and several saccharine-free exchanges between Leo and Colette.  Megan Martin’s script, adapted from the novel by Tim Sandlin, makes a virtue of Leo’s idiosyncrasies despite his wife Julie’s disparaging blog (and later, bestselling book).  Leo doesn’t expect a lot from life but he does know how to live his own life to his own level of satisfaction, and it’s this attribute that makes the movie more engaging than most recent romantic comedies; you’re never quite sure what Leo’s going to do or say next in his pursuit of Colette, and often he’s so lacking in guile it’s no wonder Colette keeps shooting him down.

Of course, the outcome of the movie is only occasionally in doubt, and there’s very little that’s new or different in the way that Colette and Danny’s marriage crumbles under the accumulated effects of Leo’s attentions.  But there are a few developments and incidents that aren’t foreseeable, such as Leo being beaten up by a group of teenagers, or his connection with an albino bear.  These add spice to the basic mix, as well as keeping some of the audience’s expectations firmly undermined.  The supporting characters are given small moments to make their mark, in particular Neil (Sasso), Leo’s publisher friend who is paranoid about his wife’s upcoming gallery opening being a result of her affair with the gallery owner.

Some aspects don’t work so well.  Colette and her mother are reconciled in two seconds’ flat; in a similar fashion, Julie has a change of heart about Leo near the movie’s end; and Leo’s juggling skills are abandoned after being prominently featured in the movie’s first half.  Danny and his lawyer cohorts are severely underwritten (as played by Woods, Troy Cooper is like someone straight out of a National Lampoon movie), and Leo’s attempts to conquer his fear of heights ends with an entirely too predictable disaster.  Chechik’s direction is solid if unspectacular, but he has a sure grasp of the dynamic that evolves between Leo and Colette, and their scenes together are wonderful to watch.  Both Kwanten and Canning are a joy to watch, and there’s a definite chemistry between them that makes the will-they-won’t-they? developments work so well.

The Right Kind of Wrong won’t win too many awards (probably), but it’s a genuinely simple romantic comedy that takes its basic premise and spins it out with clear affection for its two lead characters and their predicament.  If it sometimes seems a little contrived, this doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment the movie provides.

Rating: 7/10 – a robust but still lightweight endeavour that wins out because of its charm and the boyish enthusiasm of Kwanten; full of small surprises and a pleasant diversion if you’re in the mood for something both a little carefree and defiantly oddball.

Noah (2014)

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Noah

D: Darren Aronofsky / 138m

Cast: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth, Leo McHugh-Carroll, Anthony Hopkins, Marton Csokas, Frank Langella, Nick Nolte, Mark Margolis, Kevin Durand

It’s an unlikely idea for a fantasy movie, but Noah, as imagined by Darren Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel, is exactly that, a semi-religious essay on perceived personal sin and the demands of unwanted destiny tricked out with elaborate special effects sequences and… rock monsters.  The story of the ark is a tale told in many religions – the Biblical version isn’t even the first  - but here, Aronofsky removes any mention of God and has his characters reference The Creator instead.  With this choice in place, the decision to include Adam and Eve, the apple from the Tree of Forbidden Knowledge, and Cain and Abel becomes a little puzzling, especially when the bulk of the film is a fairly straightforward interpretation of chapters 6-9 of the Book of Genesis.

After an opening sequence that conflates the first five chapters, the inclusion of fallen angels – called the Watchers – who came to earth to support Man in his endeavours but were punished by The Creator by being turned into creatures made of rocks – and who were in turn attacked and cast out by Man – comes as a bit of a surprise (it also brings to mind the rock monster seen in Galaxy Quest (1999), not the best point of reference for a Bible story).  From there we see Noah as a young man with his father, Lamech (Csokas).  Lamech is killed by a chieftain called Tubal-Cain (Finn Wittrock); he wants Lamech’s land for his own people (and appears to have instituted the concept of manifest destiny several thousand years before it was first thought of).  Noah escapes and we next see him as an adult (Crowe).  He is married to Naameh (Connelly) and has three young sons, Shem, Ham and baby Japheth.  Noah is plagued by visions of the world covered by water.  He takes his family with him to visit his grandfather, Methuselah (Hopkins), in the hope that he can explain what the visions mean.  On the way they come across the scene of a slaughter, and rescue the only survivor, a young girl called Ila; Naameh quickly deduces that the wound she has will stop her from having children.

Methuselah believes The Creator has chosen Noah for a special task, and induces a vision that tells Noah he should build an ark.  Fast forward several years and with the help of the Watchers, the ark is nearly completed.  Shem (Booth) and Ila (Watson) have fallen in love, while Ham (Lerman) has a rebellious spark in him that Noah is unhappy about.  One day a large contingent of men led by Tubal-Cain (Winstone) come to the ark in an attempt to take control of it but the threat of the Watchers stops them.  Noah goes to their nearby encampment in the search for wives for his sons bout what he sees there, including uncontrollable lusts and signs of cannibalism, convinces him that the Creator’s plan is for the whole of Mankind to be wiped out, including Noah and his family.

Ham also travels to the encampment and there he meets Na’el (Madison Davenport).  At the same time, Ila meets Methuselah for the first time and he blesses her, curing her barrenness.  When the rain begins to fall, presaging the flood, Noah goes in search of Ham.  When he finds him, Noah is forced to leave Na’el behind – she has her leg caught in a trap – and she is trampled to death in the rush by Tubal-Cain’s people to get to the ark.  The Watchers aid Noah in keeping Tubal-Cain and his people from boarding the ark as the earth is engulfed in a terrible flood of water and massive funnels of water shoot skywards from the ground.  Somehow, Tubal-Cain manages to get aboard though he is injured in the attempt.  His boarding is witnessed by Ham, who, being angry with Noah over the death of Na’el, aids Tubal-Cain in his recovery.

Adrift on the waters, Ila learns she is pregnant and while Naameh and Shem are overjoyed, Noah is horrified.  Certain that The Creator’s intention is for all of mankind to be destroyed, he tells his family that if Ila has a girl – meaning further children could be born – he will have no choice but to kill her.  Ila and Shem attempt to escape the ark but Noah stops them.  Moments later, Ila goes into labour… and Ham draws Noah into an ambush with a recovered Tubal-Cain.

A long-cherished project of Aronofsky’s, Noah reaches us with the weight of expectation weighing heavy about its celluloid shoulders, and while the movie takes quite a few mis-steps in its waterborne journey, there’s a lot here to offset any weaknesses.  Aronofsky is a confident, innovative director and he handles the movie’s themes of sin and redemption, and sacrifice and fortitude, with considerable ease, and is aided by a commanding performance by Crowe.  Between them they have created a Noah who carries the weight of his Creator’s plan with all the strength of purpose and stoicism needed to carry it through.  It’s an impressive turn from Crowe, the kind of meaty role he obviously relishes playing, and here he doesn’t disappoint.  Under Aronofsky’s intelligent direction, Crowe is completely convincing throughout, a patriarch given an unenviable task and determined that even the hardest of personal sacrifices won’t deflect him.  (It’s no surprise how the movie ends, but when the moment comes – and it’s largely thanks to Crowe’s unpredictability as an actor – the audience isn’t certain he’ll relent from killing Ila’s offspring.)

Crowe is ably supported by Connelly and Watson, though some of the aforementioned mis-steps derive from the other male cast members.  Winstone plays a pre-Christian version of (basically) himself, complete with East London accent and mangled phrasing.  Lerman’s boyish face still can’t adequately portray any emotion except surprise (as both Percy Jackson movies will attest), while Booth is wetter than the flood and given too little to do to make a better impression.  And with Crowe on such impressive form it makes the trio’s deficiencies even more obvious.  In particular, this leads to the scenes between Tubal-Cain and Ham appearing leaden and less dramatic than they should be (not to mention too formulaic for their own good).  As for Hopkins, the less said about his truly embarrassing performance the better (though the script should bear some of the blame too.  Berries?  Really?).

Noah is often amazing to look at, with Aronofsky and director of photography Matthew Libatique exploiting Iceland’s volcanic terrain to stunning effect.  There’s a creation sequence two thirds in that looks good but holds up the movie but also seems at odds with the message that the world is the work of The Creator, as if the movie doesn’t want to be explicitly identified as a religious movie (which it isn’t anyway).  It’s this kind of fence-sitting that undermines the movie for most of its running time.  In taking a Biblical story where God seeks to expunge Man from the world only to relent when He sees the good in Noah, Aronofsky seems uncertain if he wants faith to be a central part of things, when clearly it is.  There’s a snake skin – supposedly handed down from the Garden of Eden (yes, from that snake) – that was Noah’s father’s but it’s taken by Tubal-Cain.  It’s referred to visually on several occasions but its purpose or relevance is never made clear, except possibly as a means of passing on inherited knowledge or wisdom (and I’m guessing here, it really isn’t that clear).  Another mis-step is the inclusion of the Watchers, an addition to the flood myth that might be the movie’s most ill-judged decision.  On top of their relation to the monster in Galaxy Quest, once they start laying waste to Tubal-Cain’s followers they most resemble the Ents from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002).  The idea of their being fallen angels is a good one but rock monsters?  Was that the only incarnation they could have had?  (Hang on, let me check my scripture.  Oh, I can’t.)

On a minor level, Crowe’s hair is a serious concern throughout, as is his clothing at the end (is he really wearing a suit at one point?), while Connelly stays the same all the way through.  Aronofsky appropriates some character names: in the Book of Genesis, Tubal-Cain is the son of Lamech and his sister’s name is Naamah (close enough, eh?).  This makes Tubal-Cain and Noah brothers, and Naameh his – well, let’s not go there.

Noah has its strong points, and for much of its running time, Aronofsky has a sure hand on the tiller but too often it trips over itself in its efforts to avoid any potential theological disputes.  In trying to please both sides of the is-there/isn’t-there a God argument, Aronofsky relents on the effectiveness of the drama and avoids making Noah anything more than a man-has-vision-and-does-what-it-tells-him story that lacks the necessary resonance for such a huge responsibility.  Aronofsky should thank The Creator that Crowe took on the role, for without him, what credible dramatic focus the movie has would have been lost.

Rating: 7/10 – on reflection a better movie than it seems while watching it, Noah suffers from its director’s indecisions but regains its edge thanks to Crowe’s intuitive performance; beautiful to look at, and with occasional moments of genius, but only just enough to offset the movie’s larger problems.

 

The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)

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Tale of Zatoichi, The

Original title: Zatôichi monogatari

D: Kenji Misumi / 96m

Cast: Shintarô Katsu, Masayo Banri, Ryûzô Shimada, Hajime Mitamura, Shigeru Amachi, Chitose Maki, Ikuko Môri, Michirô Minami, Eijirô Yanagi, Manabu Morita

The first of twenty-five Zatoichi movies* made between 1962 and 1973, and all starring the magnificent Shintarô Katsu, The Tale of Zatoichi introduces us to the famous blind masseur turned wandering swordsman.

When we first meet Zatoichi he’s approaching a small village, Iioka.  He knows a yakuza boss there called Sukegorô (Yanagi), and accepts an offer to stay as Sukegorô’s guest.  He soon arouses the enmity of Sukegorô’s men, particularly Tate (Minami), but also the warm attention of Tate’s sister Otane (Banri).  It’s not long before he learns of the enmity between Sukegorô and Shigezô (Shimada), another yakuza boss in the neighbouring village of Sasagawa.  Both sides are looking to escalate the bad feeling between them into all out war, but neither has a tactical or manpower advantage, or the confidence to attack the other.  With Zatoichi as his guest, Sukegorô plans to persuade him to fight on Iioka’s side; he also hopes Zatoichi’s fame as a swordsman will give them an easy victory.  But Shigezô has his own guest who’s good with a sword, Master Hirate (Amachi), and so the two rivals wait for a break in the stalemate.

Zatoichi and Hirate meet and find they have a mutual respect for each other.  Hirate reveals that he is ill with consumption; Zatoichi is filled with concern for him, and while they talk about the impending war between the yakuza gangs, Zatoichi knows that his new friend would not be a fair opponent to take on.  He decides to withdraw from any fighting, much to Sukegorô’s disgust.  When Hirate collapses, Sukegorô seizes his chance to attack.

Alongside all this, Zatoichi becomes involved in the welfare of Otane.  She has split from her lover Seisuke (Morita), who enlists Tate’s help in winning her back.  Her continued refusals, allied with Zatoichi’s kindly and protective nature toward her, leads Otane to fall in love with him, thus adding to the problems it seems he will be compelled to solve.  With a showdown between Zatoichi and Hirate proving to be inevitable, the reluctant swordsman must do what he can to resolve matters before he can leave.

It’s easy to see why Zatoichi was such an unexpected success when the character debuted in 1962.  As brought to life by the splendid Katsu, Zatoichi is a wonderfully realised character, fully rounded from the outset, and possessed of a readily identifiable personal code, one that’s entirely separate from the accepted codes of the yakuza or samurai.  He has a wry, self-deprecating sense of humour and relishes the physical pleasures in life (though he espouses any romantic attachments, at least while in Iioka).  He is fiercely loyal to those he respects, and in his relationship with Otane shows signs of being an early proto-feminist.  He hates injustice, rails at corruption, refuses to suffer fools gladly, and yet is reluctant to take up his sword unless it is absolutely necessary – and only he decides when this will be.  In this first movie we discover all this and more about Zatoichi, and taken as the nearest there is to an “origin” movie, The Tale of Zatoichi does such an incredible of introducing him that by the movie’s end we feel like he’s an old friend.  As the titular hero, Katsu is simply superb, juggling the physical demands of the role with a raft of emotional demands that are surprising for what must have been viewed as “just another” lone samurai movie.  It’s rare when an actor inhabits a role so completely from the beginning, but Katsu does it with consummate ease.

Of course it helps that Minoru Inuzuka’s script (based on the short story by Kan Shimozawa) pays as much attention to the human and emotional aspects as it does to the swordplay, investing time in the rivalry between the gangs, Otane’s domestic situation, the bond between Zatoichi and Hirate, and the myriad jealousies and resentments that Zatoichi’s presence ignites.  It’s a wonderfully layered screenplay, replete with moments of regret, sadness and tarnished hope.  From this, director Misumi has fashioned a wonderful piece of Japanese cinema, a more than worthy rival to Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (whom Zatoichi would meet later in the series), and a classic in its own right.  The movie looks beautiful as well, Misumi opting for a slightly off-kilter framing style that nevertheless keeps things fresh throughout (the highlight of this approach is when Sukegorô’s men approach Sasagawa via the river; even in black and white it’s simply stunning).

Rating: 9/10 – breathtaking and completely absorbing with an amazing central performance, The Tale of Zatoichi is an almost perfect start to the series; an outstanding movie with more going on during its ninety-six minutes than some movies achieve in twice the running time.

*All the Zatoichi movies will be reviewed in the coming months.

John Dies at the End (2012)

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John Dies at the End

D: Don Coscarelli / 99m

Cast: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, Glynn Turman, Doug Jones, Daniel Roebuck, Fabianne Therese, Jonny Weston, Jimmy Wong, Tai Bennett

Adapted from the cult novel by David Wong, John Dies at the End has two things working against it from the start: condensing the novel into ninety minutes was always going to mean a shed load of situations, characters, storylines and nuances being left out, and whatever situations, characters, storylines and nuances were included were never going to marry up convincingly.  And so it proves, with the movie throwing everything it can at the screen and the audience in the hope that some of it will impress or resonate.

It begins with an amusing prologue that helps give the viewer an idea of the approach the movie’s going to take with the material, being both surreal and off-kilter.  From there, we meet Dave (Williamson), a nervous-eyed slacker getting ready to meet journalist Arnie Blondestone (Giamatti).  Dave begins to tell Arnie about his experiences in the previous two years, and while Arnie is sceptical, as Dave tells him about all the strange things that have happened to him, Arnie’s credulity is tested at every point.  Because Dave’s story is very strange indeed, and includes a rasta street magician; a black substance, nicknamed ‘soy sauce’ that when ingested gives a person the ability to read minds, see the future, and all manner of other psychic abilities; John calling Dave on the phone despite being dead; the involvement of the police represented by a world-weary detective (Turman); possession by entities from another dimension; a dog that may be more than he seems; renowned paranormal investigator Dr. Albert Marconi (Brown); a trip to another dimension; an evil entity called Korrok; exploding eyeballs; a girl with a prosthetic hand; “the mall of the dead”; and a man called Roger North (Jones).

With so much – and more – being thrown into the mix the result is an uneven, occasionally unappealing movie that aims squarely for cultdom but never quite achieves it.  Director and writer Coscarelli (the Phantasm series) is an obvious choice for the material but with so much to choose from the novel, the finished product looks like he used a cherry picker.  It’s a scattershot movie, one that struggles to maintain a through line and ill-advisedly uses a non-linear approach to the material, giving it a stop-start, stutter-like feel.  Some scenes follow each other without the barest connection between the two, and characters generally lack both conviction and coherent motivation, leaving the viewer to either go with the flow and just accept what’s happening, or head for the exit in frustration.

If you do stick around then there are some incentives.  Despite being one of the barmiest movies in recent years, it’s somehow held together by Williamson’s bemused and confused performance, and – paradoxically – the fact that you can’t predict just what will happen next, or which odd tangent the movie will drag itself along.  John Dies at the End has so many WTF? moments it’s a little impressive, even though they don’t help the movie as a whole.  But Williamson finds a way to make Dave as fully rounded a character as possible, and finds able support from Mayes as the goofy John of the title.  Both actors intuit the material in a way that helps immeasurably in grounding things (however tenuously), and prove themselves a great team in the process.  There’s also a good line in black humour (though it’s as inconsistent as the rest of the movie), and there’s a couple of great sight gags.

The rest of the cast fare as best as they can but are largely ill-served by Coscarelli’s script.  Brown’s appearance amounts to a cameo, while Turman seizes his chance and makes his detective the only character in Dave’s story we might recognise in the real world.  Giamatti delivers the best performance and in truth that’s not much of a surprise, but it’s good to have him aboard, especially when he sees what’s in the back of Dave’s car.

There are many books and novels that are regarded as “unfilmable”, and while John Dies at the End certainly presents more than its fair share of problems for the aspiring adaptor, a more focused version could be made.  Until that happens, it’s likely that fans of the novel will be disappointed, and newcomers to Dave and John’s universe(s) are likely to be left asking themselves, “What the hell was that all about?”  A shame, as under the right conditions, and with the right script, that version of John Dies at the End would definitely be the cult classic this adaptation is aiming for.

Rating: 5/10 – a mishmash of ideas and plot threads that often wither and die before they’re fully developed, John Dies at the End gives us fantasy for fantasy’s sake in lieu of a decent plot; an incoherent mess given a boost by some creative low-budget visuals.

Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

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Muppets Most Wanted

D: James Bobin / 107m

Cast: Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey, Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, David Rudman, Matt Vogel, Peter Linz, and a list of cameos as long as the Great Gonzo’s nose

Picking up right where The Muppets (2011) ended, Muppets Most Wanted starts off with a musical number explaining the inevitability of a sequel (it’s even called We’re Doing a Sequel).  Having broken the fourth wall so anarchically, the gang then ponder what they can do next.  Enter international tour manager Dominic Badguy (Gervais), with an offer to take their show around the world.  Kermit is reluctant, wanting to take things more slowly and hone the show they’ve only recently revived.  However, the gang’s enthusiasm for the idea makes him relent and they head off to the first date of the tour, “comedy capital of the world, Berlin”.

Meanwhile, in a Siberian gulag, the world’s greatest criminal, Constantine makes his escape.  Constantine looks exactly like Kermit except for a mole on his right cheek, and before you can say “Hel-lllooo, my name is Kerrrr-meet the Frorg”, Kermit has a mole glued to his face and is shipped off to the gulag, while Constantine applies some green makeup and takes over as Kermit.  Along with Dominic – his Number Two; there’s a song about it – they plot various thefts that will eventually allow them to steal the Crown Jewels.  With no one realising Kermit has been replaced, and with Dominic allowing the gang free rein with the show, the tour’s success – after Berlin, they travel to Madrid and then Dublin – keeps everyone happy, except for Animal who’s the only one who knows Kermit isn’t Kermit.

In the gulag, Kermit is kept under the watchful eye of warden Nadya (Fey), and although she comes to believe he isn’t Constantine, she tells him it doesn’t matter, he has to stay there anyway.  It’s not long before he’s persuaded to oversee the annual review show, and getting the inmates to perfect their song-and-dance routines.  Back in Europe, the thefts are connected to the Muppet tour by Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Burrell) and FBI agent Sam the Eagle.  They follow the gang to the UK where they are due to perform at the Tower of London.  Will Kermit make it out of the gulag in time to thwart Constantine’s plan?  Will Miss Piggy get to duet with Celine Dion?  Will the world’s second greatest criminal, the mysterious Lemur, get to the Crown Jewels first?  Will the gulag inmates see their show transfer to Broadway?  And will Constantine succeed in marrying Miss Piggy in a bizarre third act twist?*

Where The Muppets was a reboot filtered through Jason Segel’s love of the gang, this is the kind of Muppet movie that we’re more familiar with: two or three human co-stars to interact with throughout, a bunch of songs to break up the manic activity and often screwball (and screwy) humour, a plot or storyline that serves as a springboard for both, and some of the gang being given legs (here though, it’s problematical: with Fozzie it makes a sight gag work, with Kermit it makes a song and dance routine look like he’s a poorly stringed marionette).  The emphasis is on having fun and while the plot veers dangerously close to being too lightweight, it’s no bad thing as the movie zips along at a good pace, and the mix of corny jokes, visual gags, great songs (again courtesy of Jemaine Clement), cameo appearances**, and clever practical effects is expertly handled by returning director James Bobin.

On the human front, Gervais coasts along for most of the movie, his role getting smaller and smaller as things progress.  Gervais is a somewhat diffident actor, and here his character serves more as a facilitator for the plot than anything else.  Burrell has fun playing against Sam the Eagle and their game of oneupmanship with their badges makes for a great gag (and one not entirely spoilt by the trailer).  It’s Fey who gets the best role, investing Nadya with a goofy realpolitik approach to the material, and perhaps inadvertently, nabbing the movie’s best (throwaway) line.  Of the Muppets, Constantine is a great new addition and deserves his time in the spotlight, the highlight of which is when he has to introduce the show for the first time.  Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and the rest of the gang all get their moments, and Beaker gets to save the day with his Bomb Attracting Suit.

Muppets Most Wanted is a fun-filled follow up to The Muppets and works on its own merits, incorporating in-jokes and references from other Muppet movies as well as giving its audience a better plot than usual to follow.  This knowing mix makes all the difference and avoids the too reverential approach of its predecessor.  With an action-packed finale to round things off, Muppets Most Wanted has all the energy and purpose you could need from a Muppet movie, and more besides.

Rating: 8/10 – for a movie that is – as Dr Bunsen Honeydew quite rightly points out – the eighth in the series, Muppets Most Wanted still hits the mark and proves the Muppets are as entertaining as ever; “Good night, Danny Trejo”.

*The answers are: Yes, Yes, Yes, Who knows?, and What do you think?

**Those cameos in full: Hugh Bonneville, Christoph Waltz, Salma Hayek, Tom Hollander, Frank Langella, Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett, James McAvoy, Tom Hiddleston, Céline Dion, Rob Corddry, Zach Galifianakis, Toby Jones, Mackenzie Crook, Til Schweiger, Usher Raymond, Josh Groban, Ray Liotta, Saoirse Ronan, Stanley Tucci, Chloë Grace Moretz, Jemaine Clement, Russell Tovey (though if you blink you really will miss him), and Danny Trejo.

 

 

Need for Speed (2014)

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Need for Speed

D: Scott Waugh / 132m

Cast: Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper, Imogen Poots, Michael Keaton, Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek, Ramon Rodriguez, Harrison Gilbertson, Dakota Johnson, Nick Chinlund

At one point in DreamWorks’ Need for Speed, Julia (Poots) comes out of a gas station restroom and sees Officer Lejeune (Chinlund) in the next aisle.  Immediately she ducks down and tries to sneak her way out.  It’s possibly the stupidest moment in the whole movie – and there’s plenty of others – and makes you wonder if anyone actually read George Gatins’ half-baked, semi-developed script before they committed to filming it.  (The answer is clearly: no.)  Another question that springs to mind is: are the car chases going to be enough to help the movie make its money back?  (We’ll get to that.)

Tobey Marshall (Paul) has inherited his father’s auto shop but there are mounting debts he can’t pay, so when old rival Dino Brewster (Cooper) offers him a chance to make $2.7 million on a private race involving Tobey, Dino and Tobey’s friend Little Pete (Gilbertson), he can’t turn it down. But Little Pete is killed in the race, forced to crash by Dino.  With Dino denying any involvement, and hiding the car he was driving, Tobey ends up  spending two years in prison.  Two years later, Tobey is released on parole, and promptly arranges for a car so that he can travel from New York to California and a) take part in a race arranged by mysterious philanthropist Monarch (Keaton), and b) have his revenge on Dino.  Dino is taking part in the race, but Tobey needs a way in as its by invitation only.  With car dealer Julia along for the ride as the car owner’s representative, Tobey gets the car and himself noticed enough times that Monarch gives him a spot in the race.  All he has to do is reach San Francisco within forty-eight hours, avoiding the police and anyone who takes up Dino’s offer of a bounty if Tobey is stopped from getting there.

Naturally, Tobey has help along the way from fellow mechanics and friends Benny (Mescudi), Finn (Malek), and Joe (Rodriguez).  Benny is also a pilot and keeps stealing planes and helicopters in order to provide Tobey with eyes in the sky along the route.  Finn and Joe help refuel the car while it’s in motion, and generally follow along the route Tobey takes in case of back up (which is eventually needed when Tobey reaches San Francisco).  Monarch provides a running commentary on Tobey’s progress, and acts as commentator when the race starts.  Julia provides the inevitable romantic interest, and Dino is the sneering villain we all want to see crash and burn like Little Pete does.  Which leaves Tobey, the mostly silent but determined underdog who should win the race but only if he watches out for dastardly Dino and his habit of running people off the road.

If it seems a little predicable so far, then that’s because it is.  Need for Speed is a movie without an original thought under its bonnet, a handful of barely convincing performances, and lines of dialogue that prove impossible to give credibility to.  It’s movie-making by cliché, a string of ill-thought out scenes and low-key characters whose combined motivations couldn’t power a light bulb.  Once again, it’s the fault of the script, a horrible concoction that almost screams, “Rush job!”  This is Gatins’ first produced screenplay, and it’s ironic that he was an associate producer on a movie called You Stupid Man (2002); he gets hardly anything right.  This leaves the cast to deal with mountains of trite and terrible dialogue, third-rate plot contrivances, scenes so laughable they should be included in a training scheme for aspiring writers – at random: Benny in a military jail asking for an iPad and being allowed to follow the race on it… and all the while the guard holds it up for him to watch – and some of the most perfunctory dialogue this side of a script by George Lucas (have I mentioned the dialogue enough yet?).

With director Scott Waugh unable to breathe any life into the movie when there’s no chase going on, Need for Speed has to depend on its action scenes to gain any brownie points or gold stars.  Much has been made already of the fact that CGI hasn’t been used in the car chase sequences, and that all the smash-ups were done for real.  And so they should be.  But while Paul and Cooper may have spent time learning how to race so they could seen behind the wheel as much as possible, what the filmmakers have failed to realise is that, racing, in and of itself, is only really interesting or attention-grabbing when something goes wrong.  So yes, the car chases are exciting, but only if you find the idea of a car going really fast in competition with another car, and (inevitably) on a deserted stretch of road, to be truly exciting.  On this evidence, it’s almost exciting, but what’s missing is a real sense of danger.  When Tobey is in Detroit and he’s being chased by the police, there’s never the slightest doubt that he’ll get away (and yes, I know that’s obvious, he’s the hero, after all) so the movie drops down a gear or two and makes his escape both a high point and, from a technical viewpoint, a bit of a let-down.

This is the highly regarded “two-lane grasshopper” manoeuvre, where Tobey accelerates up an embankment and powers his car over two lanes of traffic to land safely in a third and drive away without being followed any further – at all.  It sounds like a great stunt, and on paper it is, but in the movie it’s a short sequence made up of five or six different shots (one of which is a long shot of the car in mid-flight), that doesn’t let the viewer see it happen in one fluid take (unlike, say, the bridge jump in The Man With the Golden Gun (1974).  It’s like the scene in Speed (1995) where the bus has to jump the gap in the freeway; they say they did it for real (the jump at least), but the way it’s cut together leaves you thinking they didn’t.  Sadly, it’s the same here.

There are some positives, though.  Keaton – on a bit of a roll at the moment – reminds us just how exciting a performer he can be, and lifts the movie out of the doldrums whenever he’s on screen.  The crashes, when they happen, are spectacular and thrilling, and a testament to the creative abilities of the stunt team; they all look suitably life-threatening.  Paul and Poots, reunited after appearing together in A Long Way Down (2014), have a chemistry that helps their scenes immeasurably, and the location photography ensures the movie is nothing less than beautiful to look at in places.

Rating: 4/10 – fans will disagree but Need for Speed doesn’t have that kinetic charge that would have elevated it above other chase movies; the script’s deficiencies hurt it tremendously, too, and no matter how fast Messrs Paul and Cooper may try, that’s one (very major) problem they can’t outrun.

 

 

300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

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300 Rise of an Empire

D: Noam Murro / 102m

Cast: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey, Rodrigo Santoro, David Wenham, Jack O’Connell, Andrew Tiernan, Igal Naor

Are we all sitting comfortably?  Good, because if you’re going to watch 300: Rise of an Empire then this synopsis will probably help:

At the battle of Marathon, Greek general Themistocles (Stapleton) shoots an arrow that eventually kills Persian king Darius (Naor).  Darius’ son Xerxes (Santoro) wallows in grief at first but is heartened by his naval commander, Artemisia (Green).  She persuades him that he can be like a god, and with this he can defeat all his enemies, and particularly the Greeks.  Xerxes’ navy, under Artemisia’s command, sets sail for Greece at the same time that his army marches on Sparta.  The Persians and the Greeks do battle at sea, and despite early, minor successes, the Greeks are forced to retreat.  Themistocles tries to enlist the aid of the Spartan fleet for the next battle but Queen Gorgo (Headey) refuses as she is mourning the Spartan king Leonidas, who with his men, have failed to defeat the Persian hordes (who have since laid waste to Athens).  Themistocles has no choice but to take what few ships he has and gamble on getting to Artemisia’s barge, and killing her, which will end the battle.

There.  So what we’ve learnt from all that is that 300: Rise of an Empire is not a sequel to 300 (2006) but a side-quel, a fact-sloppy imagining of events happening concurrently with the first movie, and featuring both the Battle of Artemisium and the subsequent Battle of Salamis, complete with inky blood by the bucket load and more severed limbs than you’d find in a resurrectionist’s wheelbarrow.

It’s a strange movie to watch in many ways.  There’s the CGI-heavy backgrounds – slightly less impressive this time around – that only just manage to offset the amount of wood and cardboard on display in the foreground; Queen Gorgo’s penchant for narrating the movie despite not being involved in much of it; Stapleton’s attempts to rally his men in the same fashion as Gerard Butler (and failing); the very strange way in which Xerxes goes from ordinary bloke to baldy giant just by taking a bath; Green’s performance as a ball-breaking Goth-eyed head case; more thick-eared dialogue than you can shake a spear at; one of the most risible (not to mention unlikely) sex scenes in recent memory; and the sight of a horse plunging underwater and then miraculously resurfacing without anything to boost itself up from.  It’s all a little bit overwhelming, as if the filmmakers just decided at some point that “over the top” was the way to go, and proceeded accordingly.

It’s not even that 300: Rise of an Empire is a terrible movie – though it does have some terrible moments, and a couple of terrible performances (step forward O’Connell and Santoro).  It’s more that it’s a movie (so far) out there that it’s in a class of its own.  It exists in a strange half-world where the usual requirements for an historical epic can be safely ignored in favour of bloody spectacle.  And on this level the movie succeeds completely.  Unless this movie is remade at some point in the future – and right now that seems about as likely as producer Zack Snyder making a movie about a violinist rehearsing a piece of chamber music – you will never see a naval battle like either of the ones depicted here.  It’s these sequences that allow the audience to forgive all the movie’s flaws, because when all’s said and done, both battles are brutally impressive, a ballet of blood and beheadings and dismemberment that is as gorily inventive and casually choreographed as anyone who likes this sort of thing could hope for.  It’s not to everyone’s taste, certainly, but it’s hard to deny how well it’s been done.  It’s a shame this much passion couldn’t have been applied to the rest of the movie.

Repeating their roles, Headey and Wenham pop up from time to time to remind us there was and is another movie, while Santoro chews the scenery with unrestrained ferocity.  Stapleton tries to inject some intellect and thought into his performance, but the script defeats him.  Murro directs with an eye on the next limb to be hacked off and appears unconcerned about making the political machinations of both sides either clear or interesting.  The score by Junkie XL is overly dramatic but fits the bill, while Patrick Tatopoulos production design is as impressive as you’d expect.  What these all add up to though is a movie with a strong identity, but one that would be better suited to a video game.

Rating: 6/10 – an extra point for the unrelenting barbarity of the battle sequences, and the movie’s determination to leave no Persian or Greek unscathed; unappealing for most people but like its slightly less aggressive predecessor, war porn for those who  like that sort of thing.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

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Captain America The Winter Soldier

D: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo / 136m

Cast: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Frank Grillo, Cobie Smulders, Maximiliano Hernández, Emily VanCamp, Hayley Atwell, Toby Jones

Episode 3 of Phase 2 of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe sees ninety-five year old Steve Rogers (Evans) still trying to fit in to the modern day era.  After the events of Avengers Assemble (2012), his life has settled down a bit, though he still has doubts about his role in S.H.I.E.L.D.  When Nick Fury (Jackson) sends him on a mission with Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Johansson) that proves to be cover for another, secret, mission altogether, Rogers confronts Fury over being used.  Fury takes Rogers’ point and as a show of faith, shows him the fruits of Project Insight, a plan to pre-empt future terrorist activity involving three gi-normous heli-carriers that, once launched, will sync up with satellites in order to locate and eradicate their targets.  Rogers is unimpressed and refuses to be a part of it all.  Meanwhile, Fury, having acquired a USB stick that contains details of Project Insight, finds himself unable to access it, despite its having apparently been encrypted by him.  He takes his concerns to senior S.H.I.E.L.D. officer Alexander Pierce (Redford), and asks for a delay in Project Insight’s launch.

Later, Fury is injured in an ambush carried out by agents we later learn are working for Hydra, and by a masked man with a metal arm; this proves to be the Winter Soldier of the title.  Fury manages to get to Rogers’ apartment and gives him the USB stick.  Before he can say any more, Fury is shot by the Winter Soldier.  Both Natasha and Pierce attempt to find out why Fury was in Rogers’ apartment but he rebuffs both of them.  When Natasha finds the USB stick he’s forced to accept her help, even though Fury told him to “trust no one”.  They trace the stick’s origins to a secret bunker at the army base where Rogers received his training.  There they encounter the consciousness of Hydra scientist Dr Zola (Jones) who has been infiltrating S.H.I.E.L.D.s systems since his co-option after World War II.  A missile strike on the base that nearly kills them points to Pierce as the architect behind Hydra’s involvement in Project Insight and the attack on Fury.

With the aid of Sam Wilson (Mackie), a veteran with a surprise of his own to share, and Agent Hill (Smulders), Rogers and Natasha decide to stop the launch of Project Insight, but not before they’re targeted by the Winter Soldier.  During this encounter, his identity is revealed as Bucky Barnes, Rogers’ best friend from his army days and someone everybody believed had died during a mission.  From there it becomes a race against time to stop Pierce, the Winter Soldier, and the launch of the heli-carriers.

From the outset, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a more confident, more impressive outing than Rogers’ first appearance.  Partly this is due to the first movie’s need to be an origin story, and partly because Rogers has always been Marvel’s answer to the “truth, justice and the American way” approach of DC’s Superman.  He’s the ultimate boy scout, not for him the convenient grey areas and moral sidestepping of today’s society.  Instead he sees things in black and white, and when challenged keeps his moral compass constant; it’s this unshakeable point of view that makes his character more interesting than many of his co-Avengers.  Evans has grown into the role over the course of three movies, and he’s never less than absolutely convincing.

Of course, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ever-so-slightly imperialistic view of the world is glossed over in favour of some extended action sequences and a final thirty minutes that tests the various effects departments to destroy as much as possible in as many ways as possible (if there’s one thing the Avengers are good for, it’s putting insurance premiums up on a regular basis).  Rogers’ solution to the problem of Hydra and S.H.I.E.L.D. being joined at the hip (as it were) is extreme – and certainly poses a problem for the writers of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series – but it has a certain inevitability given the circumstances and the extent of Hydra’s infiltration.  Pierce’s motivation is less clear-cut and has something to do with creating a new world out of the current one, where there will be no subversive activity because anyone fitting his description of subversive will be targeted and killed.  (When the hell-carriers are launched and start picking out targets what we see on screen is laughable: in New York alone there appears to be a subversive living on nearly every block.)  How this idea benefits Hydra is never explained, and for all the issues surrounding the rights and wrongs of homeland security, the greater plot is poorly explored and exploited.

Also worrying are moments where the plot falters in other areas.  Rogers pays a visit to Peggy Carter (Atwell), now ill and in what looks like a nursing home.  It’s a short scene, and while both Evans and Atwell give it the resonance such a scene demands, it sits uncomfortably within the movie and isn’t referred to either before or after.  Part of Rogers’ solution to the problem of Hydra is to upload all of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s files and history onto the Internet, but why this is necessary is never explained, and only serves to give Natasha a chance to verbally stick two fingers up at a congressional committee.  And Dr Zola is only too quick to explain what’s going on and spill the beans about Hydra’s activities within S.H.I.E.L.D.

But there’s plenty to enjoy as well.  Those extended action sequences are superbly executed, although most of the hand-to-hand combat between Captain America and the Winter Soldier is edited to within an inch of both their lives, sacrificing clarity of movement for speed.  When Fury is ambushed it leads to a car chase that is as thrilling, if not more so, than those in Need for Speed, and the fight in the elevator – Rogers against (I counted ten) assailants is a stand-out.  Evans and the rest of the cast are on top form, and newbies Mackie and Redford fit in well as hero and villain respectively.  The Russo brothers handle the visuals with style, creating a lot of space for the characters to move around in, both to emphasise the scale of the movie and the threat within it.  And while some aspects of the script don’t always add up, for once the dialogue isn’t as hokey or contrived as it might have been (and the best line is delivered by the computer in Fury’s car).  The relationship between Rogers and Natasha is deepened, there’s a quick-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to someone who’s still waiting for their own movie, some knowing humour in amongst the gunplay and explosions, and a short pre-credits scene that introduces us to… well, that would be telling.

Rating: 8/10 – narrative troubles aside, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a confident mix of character development – even Fury’s – and spectacular action; another hit from Marvel Studios and one that seems certain to be the real precursor to Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), rather than Iron Man 3 (2013) or Thor: The Dark World (2013).

Death on the Nile (1978)

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Death on the Nile

D: John Guillermin / 140m

Cast: Peter Ustinov, Jane Birkin, Lois Chiles, Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, Jon Finch, Olivia Hussey, I.S. Johar, George Kennedy, Angela Lansbury, Simon MacCorkindale, David Niven, Maggie Smith, Jack Warden

Making a somewhat delayed appearance after the success of Murder on the Orient Express (1974, and referenced here near the end), Death on the Nile takes the all-star format of that movie and replicates it in another Agatha Christie adaptation.  Instead of Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot we have an avuncular, slightly whimsical Peter Ustinov, aided and abetted by old friend Colonel Race (Niven).  The set up: murder committed on a steamer making its way down the Nile, makes good use of its confined setting, and keeps the audience guessing throughout.

The story begins in England.  Heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Chiles) meets Simon (MacCorkindale), the fiancé of her best friend, Jackie (Farrow).  Not long after Linnet and Simon marry, much to the dismay of Jackie.  On their honeymoon tour of Europe and the Middle East, Jackie keeps popping up when they least expect it, attempting to ruin their trip.  They give Jackie the slip on the morning of their trip down the Nile, and board the steamer, unaware that nearly everyone else on board has a reason to want to see Linnet dead.  There’s her maid, Louise (Birkin), who is in love with a married man; Linnet refuses to give Louise the money she’s been promised so she can be with him.  Sex-mad authoress Salome Otterbourne (Lansbury) is being sued by Linnet over an ill-disguised representation of her in one of Salome’s novels.  Salome’s daughter, Rosalie (Hussey), will do anything to see her mother isn’t ruined.  Mrs Van Schuyler (Davis) has designs on a set of valuable pearls that Linnet owns, while her companion, Miss Bowers (Smith), saw her family ruined by Linnet’s father.  Then there is Andrew Pennington (Kennedy), Linnet’s American lawyer, who is embezzling funds from her estate, and would be ruined himself if she finds out.  Add to the mix, would-be (but not very convincing) socialist Mr. Ferguson (Finch), who thinks people like Linnet should be done away with, and the secretive Dr Bessner (Warden), as well as Jackie – who finds her way on to the steamer after all – and you have the usual glut of suspects you come to expect from one of Agatha  Christie’s whodunits.

One evening, Simon and Jackie have an argument.  Jackie has been drinking and in a fit of anger, she pulls out a gun and shoots Simon in the leg.  While a distraught Jackie is looked after by some of the other passengers, and Simon is seen to by Dr Bessner, someone takes the opportunity to steal Jackie’s gun and kill Linnet with it.  Entrusted by the company that owns the steamer to investigate the matter before it reaches its destination, Poirot and Colonel Race seek to discover the murderer’s identity and reveal how the murder was committed and why.

Generally regarded as one of Agatha Christie’s better novels, Death on the Nile has all the hallmarks of a prestige, international movie, with its glamorous Nile location, its glittering array of stars, and its lead character, recognised the world over.  In Ustinov’s hands, Poirot is by turns tetchy, amused, officious, arrogant, playful, and generous.  Given all that, it’s actually a less mannered performance than Finney’s, with Ustinov relaxing in the role for long stretches – particularly in the movie’s rather long-winded first hour – and providing some much-needed humour when the story requires it.  The traditional speech where he reveals the murderer is delivered with a nice mix of gravitas and sadness, making him less the avenging angel of some interpretations and more of a weary observer of human weaknesses.  It’s an astute performance, and one he was able to repeat in two further big screen outings – Evil Under the Sun (1982) and Appointment With Death (1988) – as well as three made for TV movies.

The rest of the cast all get their moments to shine, but some have less to do than others (Finch is probably given the least to do, but it’s unsurprising as his character is there mainly to provide Rosalie with a romantic attachment).  Davis and Smith make for a great double act, and even now it’s amazing to see the way in which Smith pulls Davis about without a moment’s hesitation.  Farrow plays the vengeful ex-fiancée to the hilt while supposedly star-crossed newlyweds Chiles and MacCorkindale provide less than convincing performances, she being unable to match her facial expressions to the emotion required, and he being unable to manage any facial expressions.  Niven has the thankless task of playing baffled foil to the great detective, while it’s Lansbury who steals the movie out from everyone with her portrayal of an ageing authoress with sex on the brain and a more than passing interest in the bar (she makes for a great lush).

With all the emphasis on its cast, the storyline and plotting take a bit of a back seat, despite being played out for nearly two hours before Poirot gathers everyone together for the “big reveal”.  Events occur that might be important, others prove to be red herrings, and one attempted murder at a temple is quickly forgotten about until the end, when the perpetrator is revealed.  Anthony Shaffer’s screenplay takes the bulk of Christie’s novel and puts it up there for all to see but in the process drags out the running time.  A case in point is the long stretch in the second hour where Poirot challenges the other passengers with his versions of how each one could have committed the murder.  They’re all of a similar nature and some judicious pruning at this stage would have been more effective; just one or two “recreations” would have sufficed for the audience to get the picture.

In the director’s chair, Guillermin coaxes good performances from his cast, and keeps the audience guessing throughout as to whether or not they’ve seen or heard something important or not (though chances are they have – it’s that kind of adaptation).  Having made the disastrous King Kong (1976) remake, it’s good to see him assemble the cast, script, locations and photography to such good effect, giving the movie a light, airy visual style that offsets the seriousness of the storyline and keeps it continually entertaining.

Rating: 8/10 – its length notwithstanding, Death on the Nile is an above par Christie adaptation, with a strong cast abetted by confident direction and beautiful location work; a good mystery too, with an ending that’s way more downbeat than anyone would ever expect.

Stray Bullet (2010)

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Stray Bullet

Original title: Rsasa taycheh

D: Georges Hachem / 75m

Cast: Nadine Labaki, Takla Chamoun, Hind Taher, Badih Bou Chakra, Rodrigue Sleiman, Nazih Youssef, Patricia Nammour, Pauline Haddad, Nasri Sayegh, Joelle Hannah, Lamia Merhi

Set in Palestine at summer’s end in 1976, Stray Bullet examines the increasing tensions that arise a fortnight before Noha (Labaki) is due to marry Jean (Youssef).  Noha is unsure if she wants to go through with the wedding; talking to her friend Wadad (Nammour), it becomes clear that Noha still has feelings for Joseph (Sleiman), the man she was seeing up until three years ago.  She tells her friend that she has arranged to meet Joseph, but she doesn’t know if her feelings for him are strong enough to convince her to cancel the wedding.  Confused about her own emotions, and unsure of how Joseph feels about her, Noha goes ahead with the meeting already aware that her family will not agree to her seeing Joseph, and that if they find out it will cause a rift between herself and her brother Assaf (Chakra).

Noha meets Joseph and they drive out into the nearby countryside.  They talk about how they feel but Noha is disappointed with Joseph’s reactions and gets out of the car.  She walks out of sight of Joseph and finds herself witness to a female revolutionary murdering someone tied up in a sack.  Joseph appears having heard the shot.  While Noha remains in hiding, Joseph is taken away by the revolutionary’s men.  Left with no other option, Noha walks back home.

Later that evening, Noha, her mother (Taher), and her older sister Leila (Chamoun) attend a pre-wedding get together at her brother’s.  Jean is there too, along with his mother, while the female revolutionary Noha saw earlier, Alexandra (Haddad), is also there (though it’s never made clear how she fits into the family dynamic).  There follows a debate about the war – so recently over and yet so clearly on the verge of being resumed –  and further discussion about the wedding.  As the evening progresses, circumstances provide Assaf with the knowledge that Noha has seen Joseph.  He assaults his sister before throwing her out and telling her she isn’t his sister anymore and he doesn’t know her.  As she reaches home, tragedy strikes and Noha’s life is turned completely upside down.

Stray Bullet, with its theme of family loyalty versus personal freedom, is a dour piece, deliberately paced, and gloomily lit.  The visual style sits well with Noha’s emotional demeanour and her struggle to come to terms with her own feelings.  The conflict she feels towards Joseph highlights the way in which she also feels estranged from everyone else around her, particularly her sister, who being older and still unmarried, is who she fears she will become if she doesn’t marry.  Noha wants to get married and avoid becoming like Leila, but at the same time she has no feelings for Jean.  Family pressure has got her this far, to a point where if she doesn’t act, it will be too late.  But which is the worst option: to be married to someone she doesn’t love, or to remain single and unloved by anyone else?

Labaki is a strong screen presence and convincingly portrays Noha as a woman determined to find her own path in life and not the one her family thinks she should take.  Noha is wilful, at times scornful, of her sister and mother’s concerns about her commitment to the marriage, and Labaki’s performance is a fierce exercise in emotional warfare, burying Noha’s vulnerability so that she can survive the battle she knows is ahead of her.  The moment when Noha rails against Assaf is a short but gripping one, and in that moment, Labaki gives voice to all the pain and insecurity that Noha has been keeping in check for so long.  It’s a stand-out moment, and a mesmerising one thanks to Labaki’s committed performance.

Director Hachem has assembled a fine cast, and his script – while at first glance a little predictable – gives everyone plenty to do, even in the smaller roles.  Chamoun is particularly good as Noha’s spinster sister and the monologue she gives detailing the failure of her engagement is etched with deep-rooted regret and self-pity.  Hachem also makes good use of close-ups, cutting in tight on the characters’ faces, leaving nothing to the audience’s imagination as to how these people are feeling, and how it’s all affecting them.  Anger, disappointment, expectations, loss, distress, rage – all these and more are clearly visible.  The undercurrents can that affect family life are highlighted with unflinching directness. As a result, the movie’s coda is nothing more than devastating.

Rating: 8/10 – a short but powerfully realised movie that lingers in the memory thanks to good performances and a straightforward visual style; with clear direction and a streamlined, character-driven script, Stray Bullet is a poignant, rewarding experience.

Better Living Through Chemistry (2014)

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Better Living Through Chemistry

D: Geoff Moore, David Posamentier / 91m

Cast: Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Michelle Monaghan, Norbert Leo Butz, Ben Schwartz, Ken Howard, Harrison Holzer, Ray Liotta, Jane Fonda

Another slice of American small-town life, Better Living Through Chemistry introduces us to pharmacist Doug Varney (Rockwell).  Doug is married to Kara (Monaghan) and they have a twelve year old son, Ethan (Holzer).  Kara is too absorbed in her work as a fitness instructor to pay Doug much attention and they haven’t had sex for ages, while their son is getting into trouble at school.  At work, Doug has just taken over his father-in-law’s pharmacy business but is dismayed to find the sign isn’t changing from Bishop’s Pharmacy to Varney’s Pharmacy.  Browbeaten and ignored by the people closest to him, Doug continually finds it difficult to stand up for himself, or make any lasting changes in his life.  Seeing no way out of his predicament, he coasts along resignedly… until he meets Elizabeth (Wilde).

Elizabeth has recently moved to town with her husband, Jack (Liotta).  She takes a lot of pills and drinks a lot of alcohol and tells Doug about her troubled marriage.  They begin an affair, during which Doug takes one of Elizabeth’s pills, the first time he’s ever taken any drug, prescribed or otherwise.  Gaining a liking for how drugs can make him feel, Doug begins to make his own, mixing various pills in order to maintain and then boost the wellbeing he’s experiencing.  The drugs boost his confidence, and this in turn, helps him address matters at home.  He reconnects with Ethan, and devises a plan to beat Kara in the annual cycling race she has dominated for five of the last six years.  And as well as juggling work, his home life, and his affair with Elizabeth, Doug also has to deal with a routine investigation by DEA agent Carp (Butz), that might uncover his misuse of his stock.

Doug and Elizabeth’s affair becomes more serious and they plan to leave town together, but Elizabeth has signed a pre-nuptual agreement, and Doug will lose what little he has in a divorce.  They decide to bump off Jack by making a slight change to his prescription.  Elizabeth leaves town to establish an alibi, and Doug arranges for Jack’s medication to be delivered by assistant Noah (Schwartz).  But their plans go awry, and in a way neither of them could have foreseen…

A bittersweet drama with comedic episodes woven into the movie’s fabric, Better Living Through Chemistry is an enjoyable though perilously lightweight movie that benefits tremendously from Rockwell’s confident central performance.  There’s little here that’s entirely new but co-writers/directors Moore and Posamentier have done a good job in bringing together and exploiting both the humorous and the dramatic elements.  The movie switches focus with ease from scene to scene, offering different moods at different times, but there’s nothing forced or contrived about the way events unfold, or how the characters react to or deal with them.

This is largely due to the script, which (as mentioned above) only occasionally strays towards depth, but does have a few things to say about love and marriage (even if we’ve heard and seen them many times before).  Where it does do well is in its ability to upset the audience’s expectations.  After the cycling race, Doug and Kara have sex, and it’s the most satisfying sex they’ve had in ages, but it doesn’t presage a sea change in their relationship.  Instead, it reinforces Doug’s decision to leave Kara for Elizabeth.  It’s this kind of twist in the tale that the movie does so well, and this and some other surprises stop it from being entirely predictable.

Unfortunately, the characters are mostly one-dimensional, especially as written, but thankfully the cast are more than up to the challenge of breathing life into them.  Rockwell excels as the mild-mannered pharmacist turned would-be killer for love (you’ll never look at him in the same way again after seeing him in a leotard), and carries the movie effortlessly, making Doug an everyman character we can all sympathise with and root for.  Wilde has the glamour role, and carries it off with ease, subverting expectations as to Elizabeth’s motivations at every turn.  Monaghan has the least developed role but still manages to make Kara a shade more interesting than if she was just a hard-nosed bitch, and in minor roles, Liotta (providing what amounts to a cameo) and Butz add flavour to the proceedings.  The oddest role goes to Jane Fonda who not only narrates the movie as if she’s been witness to everything that happens, but also appears briefly at the end, and is listed as herself in the end credits.

With its well-chosen cast and its carefree approach to recreational drug use, Better Living Through Chemistry is neither a cautionary tale nor an exposé of small town secrets.  At its heart it’s a look at one man’s road to emotional self-recovery, and on that level it works splendidly.  But without any appreciable depth to proceedings, the movie misses out on being as effective as it could have been.

Rating: 7/10 – a charming movie given life by its well-chosen cast (it’s hard now to envision first choice Jeremy Renner in the role of Doug), Better Living Through Chemistry often comes close to letting itself down but just manages to avoid doing so; an undemanding movie, but still a winning one for all that.

Mr Hublot. (2013)

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Mr Hublot.

D: Laurent Witz, Alexandre Espigares / 11m

Winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Animated Short Film, Mr Hublot. is the simple tale of a little man with OCD who spends his days checking that the pictures on his walls are aligned correctly, turning his lights on and off a proscribed number of times, while also managing to work from home.  He doesn’t appear to go anywhere, or have any hobbies.  He does appear to be happy though.  One day he hears the screech of brakes outside his apartment.  He goes to his balcony and sees that a robot dog has been abandoned on the sidewalk across the street.  At first he’s only mildly concerned and returns to his daily routine.  Later, when it’s raining, he hears the dog crying.  He looks out again and sees the dog cowering from the storm in a cardboard box.  The next morning, he looks out and is horrified to see the refuse collectors putting several cardboard boxes into the back of the truck where they are being crushed.  He dashes down to the street but is too late: the boxes are all crushed and the refuse truck has moved on.  But the dog is still alive.  Overjoyed, Mr Hublot takes him back to his apartment.

How the robot dog settles into Mr Hublot’s life and apartment makes up for the rest of the movie, and perhaps it’s a good idea to mention that when they first meet, the dog is a puppy.  As he grows it causes all sorts of problems for our bespectacled hero (not least when it comes to watching television), and it’s not long before Mr Hublot is forced to make a difficult decision about the dog’s future.

There is much to admire in Mr Hublot., from the steampunk world he lives in (inspired by the work of Belgian sculptor and artist Stéphane Halleux) to the convincing detail of the apartment he lives in.  There are Victorian elements to the set design that offset beautifully the mechanical devices, and the array of implements and machinery adds a commendable layer of authenticity to the surroundings.  With such a fully realised world to lose oneself in, it’s good to have Mr Hublot along as our guide, OCD and all (watch for the quandary he has to deal with when leaving the apartment in order to save the dog).  With his Gru-like dome of a head, complete with thought counter(?), and aviator-style goggles, Mr Hublot is like an eccentric uncle, one your parents don’t talk about much but who charms you from the moment you meet him.

The robot dog is a great character as well, a lively, attention-seeking puppy that turns into a destructive, immovable adult (but still retains his likeability).  As a grown dog a resemblance to the Iron Giant comes to the fore, and his strong metal jaw manages to give the impression that he’s smiling a lot of the time.  Even without a name, this robot pet is cute, adorable, annoying, stubborn, infuriating and even more cute the longer he stays with Mr Hublot.  It’s an inspired match, pairing a reclusive gentleman with a lively pet (though the effect the dog has on Mr Hublot’s OCD is less pronounced than you might expect).  There’s an emotional bond there too, and an entirely credible one at that.  It helps to ground some of the movie’s more whimsical moments, and provides the audience with a layer of depth that might otherwise be missing.

Co-director and writer – and first-timer – Laurent Witz has created a character and a world that is enjoyably realistic in its presentation.  He’s also taken a predictable storyline – one man and his dog – and managed to include a few surprises along the way, making Mr Hublot. a rewarding experience from beginning to end.  If there are to be any more adventures involving Mr Hublot, then they can’t come soon enough.

Rating: 9/10 – a beautifully realised “alternative” world that has been brought to life with amazing attention to detail; with its loveable and endearing central character, Mr Hublot. is a treat for fans of animation everywhere.

 

Authors Anonymous (2014)

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Authors Anonymous

D: Ellie Kanner / 93m

Cast: Kaley Cuoco, Chris Klein, Teri Polo, Dylan Walsh, Dennis Farina, Jonathan Bennett, Tricia Helfer, Jonathan Banks, Meagen Fay

Centred around a writer’s group assembled by optometrist Alan Mooney (Walsh), Authors Anonymous takes its aspiring, unpublished authors – Alan, pizza delivery guy Henry (Klein), war veteran John (Farina), Alan’s wife Colette (Polo), and slacker William (Bennett) – and lets the audience watch what happens when Hannah (Cuoco) is introduced into the group.  Hannah is the least literary-minded of the group, and as the movie progresses it becomes clear she doesn’t really read, she just writes.  When asked by Henry if she’s read The Great Gatsby, he’s amazed to find she’s never heard of it, let alone its author (and his favourite), F. Scott Fitzgerald.  William’s favourite author is Charles Bukowski, while John’s is Tom Clancy.  Colette is writing a novel called Nyet (Not Yet).  Alan likes to think of himself as an ideas man; he carries a dictaphone around with him and records his ideas as and when inspiration strikes – “Idea for Michael Crichton-type novel, members of Antarctic research station attacked by mutant penguins”.

The cat is really thrown amongst the pigeons when Hannah reveals she’s secured an agent.  Everyone is mildly happy for her and they do their best not to look too unsupportive, although John, probably the most competitive of the group, feels compelled to mention that an agent is currently reading his novel, Roaring Lion.  Things really begin to fracture when Hannah announces that her agent has sold her book and it’s going to be published.  Not wishing to be outdone, John goes the route of self-publishing, getting his book printed in China (and with disappointing results).  As the harmony within the group begins to unravel ever faster and faster, Hannah does her best to reassure everyone that they are all in it together, but personal ambitions and individual pride prove too strong to overcome.

As Hannah’s good fortune increases, she and Henry embark on a tentative relationship.  This helps break his writer’s block, but his thinly disguised literary version of their connection doesn’t fool anyone, and his hopes for his fictional characters are soon shot down.  Colette struggles to get her manuscript to an agent, even going so far as to “accidentally” bump into one at her husband’s practice.  William contributes very minor corrections each week to the three pages he’s written so far, while John decides to promote his book at the hardware store where his girlfriend, Sigrid (Helfer) works.  Each have their own blinkered view of their abilities, each thinks they can be successful in their own right, except for Alan who is happy to support his wife in her career.

Of course, with the exception of Henry, they are all terrible writers (or ideas man).  The movie makes a lot of hay out of the level of self-delusion each character brings to the typewriter, but does so with a degree of heart that underpins the humour.  Completely lacking in talent they may be, but John, William, Colette and Alan all have hope that their next big idea or writing project is going to be the one that makes them a success; they’re dreamers, and in a kind-hearted way, Authors Anonymous, doesn’t discourage the idea of that dream, even when each of them suffers setback after setback.  Even when John’s book signing backfires, it’s only slightly amusing, and as played by the late, great Dennis Farina, John’s disappointment is heartbreaking; he has such confidence in his book he can’t understand why it’s not an instant bestseller.

Colette stands out as the most desperate of the group, her need to succeed infusing everything she does with a barely restrained impetus.  Polo plays her as a trophy wife who wants her own identity, even if that identity is too much for her to achieve.  Backed by a husband she has few real feelings for beyond those at a superficial level, Colette eventually finds her way in to literary circles but not in the way she expects, while Alan is left to rue the day he created the group.

Aside and relatively uninvolved in all this is Hannah, an outwardly carefree, unpretentious woman who writes what she knows (not a bad maxim to have).  But Hannah is more determined than she at first appears, and if the will to succeed at all costs is carefully hidden at the outset, there’s no doubt about it by the movie’s end.  Cuoco (best known as Penny in The Big Bang Theory) doesn’t quite nail all the nuances that make Hannah deeper than she seems, and puts too much into making her more wholesome than she needs to be.  Her burgeoning relationship with Henry is too sedate to be credible; they’re too respectful of each other, and the passion they show in their writing fails to show up when they’re together.  There’s the makings of a good friendship there, and the script by David Congalton pursues that rather than a tumultuous affair.

And therein lies the movie’s unavoidable problem: it’s too nice.  In fact, it takes a very pleasant, often languid approach, and maintains that pace and presentation from start to end.  There are some moments of drama, but this is first and foremost a slow burn romantic comedy with the romance left out, leaving the audience with a comedy of (literary) manners.  It’s amusing in places but not uproariously so, and is at least character driven rather than reliant on gross-out gags and violent pratfalls.  It’s also shot in a faux cinéma vérité style – the group is being filmed for a documentary feature – that breaks its own rules frequently, and doesn’t really add anything to the proceedings.  The cast are willing participants and Polo and Farina are stand outs, while Klein and Cuoco do their best with characters who skirt perilously close to being a few baby steps away from boring.  Kanner directs with an occasional attempt at flair and a liking for low camera angles, and there’s a chirpy, upbeat score courtesy of Jeff Cardoni that should be distracting but fits the action.  There’s a few heavy-handed swipes at celebrity culture and pretentious literary types added to the mix but they’re not given enough focus to sway anyone’s attention or already held opinion, and the movie ends with a predictable coda based around the running gag/question of who is Hannah’s favourite author.  If you can’t guess who it is, then you haven’t seen enough movies, let alone read enough books.

Rating: 6/10 – a pleasant enough diversion made more engaging every time Farina is on screen; but with very little of note to break things up, or bolder characterisations, Authors Anonymous is like the cinematic equivalent of a synopsis.

Mini-Review: Turbo (2013)

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Turbo

D: David Soren / 93m

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti, Michael Peña, Luis Guzmán, Bill Hader, Samuel L. Jackson, Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph, Ben Schwartz, Richard Jenkins, Ken Jeong, Michelle Rodriguez

Another offering from Dreamworks, Turbo is the tale of a snail who dreams of being a racer, and despairs of his everyday humdrum life working in a tomato patch. After an extended opening where his boredom is explored a little too thoroughly, Turbo (Reynolds) finds himself transformed after an encounter with the fuel of a dragstrip racing car. Now he has the speed he needs to broaden his horizons and live his dream. With the unlikely help of taco seller Tito (Peña) and a motley crew of fellow snails led by Whiplash (Jackson), Turbo wins a place in the Indianapolis 500. Can he realise his dream? Can he win over his worried, over-protective brother Chet (Giamatti)? Can he defeat the world champion, Guy Gagné (Hader)? The answers are…very predictable.

This is yet another plucky-underdog-overcomes-huge-obstacles-to-realise-his-dream movie, and while entertaining in a superficial way with some great sight gags and one running joke in particular that works well, Turbo never really takes off. The main problem lies in the plotting: there’s nothing here we haven’t seen a hundred times before, and while the cast is an amazing array of talent, the dialogue they’re given borders on the banal. The animation is proficient without having that extra zing that Pixar brings to the mix, or even Dreamworks themselves with movies such as How to Train Your Dragon, and the race itself feels, ironically, pedestrian. A missed opportunity, then, but still miles ahead of Planes and Cars 2.

Rating: 6/10 – while the movie under performs as a whole, there’s still enough here to keep an audience occupied; will fare better with younger children, and if there’s a choice, see it in 3D which adds an extra crispness to the visuals.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

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Grand Budapest Hotel, The

D: Wes Anderson / 100m

Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Léa Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson

There’s nothing quite like a Wes Anderson movie, and each one that comes along is a reason to hang out the bunting, crack open the bubbly, and give thanks to the cinematic gods.  Even when one of Anderson’s movies isn’t quite as involving or engaging as usual – step forward The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) – it’s still something to treasure, a respite from the formulaic and humdrum offerings of (most) other filmmakers.  His last feature, Moonrise Kingdom (2012), was my movie of the year, and quite possibly his best movie yet.  That movie is a tough act to follow – will The Grand Budapest Hotel match, or better it?

The movie begins with a young girl approaching a statue in a cemetery in the Middle European city of Lutz.  The statue is dedicated to the Author.  She begins to read from one of his books.  The author (Wilkinson) takes over the narrative and we see him speaking to camera.  He begins to tell the story of when he was a young man, and his stay at the titular hotel.  Here the narrative is taken over by the author as that younger version of himself.  The young author (Law) tells of his meeting with the mysterious owner of the hotel, Mr. Moustafa (Abraham).  In turn, Moustafa tells the young author how he came to own the hotel, beginning with his arrival at the hotel in 1932 as a young man called Zero (Revolori), and his tutelage as a lobby boy under the hotel’s concierge, M. Gustave (Fiennes).

M. Gustave has a penchant for the hotel’s elderly female guests, in particular, Madame D. (Swinton).  When she leaves the hotel to return to her family home in Lutz, she tells M. Gustave she has a premonition that something will happen to her.  Her prediction proves true, and she is found dead, poisoned.  M. Gustave and Zero go to pay their respects and find themselves at the reading of the will.  With the whole family in attendance, including son Dmitri (Brody), M. Gustave learns he has inherited a valuable painting, Boy with Apple.  Dmitri is outraged and threatens M. Gustave that he will never have the painting.  So the concierge and the lobby boy steal the painting and hide it back in the Grand Budapest Hotel.

With a missing document holding up the disbursement of the will’s provisions, the sudden disappearance of Madame D.’s servant Serge X (Amalric), and the approaching onset of war with a neighbouring country, M. Gustave finds himself arrested and charged with Madame D.’s murder (and despite a clear lack of evidence to incriminate him).  Once in jail, M. Gustave makes friends with some of the inmates, including Ludwig (Keitel), and they propose an escape.  With the help of Zero and his girlfriend, baker’s assistant Agatha (Ronan), M. Gustave breaks out of jail, and using the combined talents of several other concierges across the continent, tracks down Serge X who reveals Madame D. made a second will that the family believes is destroyed.  There is a copy, though, and it’s hidden in the back of the painting.  M. Gustave and Zero must return to the hotel, retrieve the painting, and avoid being killed by Jopling (Dafoe), a psychotic investigator in Dmitri’s employ.

In the world of cinema, nobody does “quirky” or “off the wall” like Anderson, and The Grand Budapest Hotel is no different.  With its tale within a tale within a tale within a tale, the movie delights and amuses on so many different levels it’s hard to keep track of them all.  There’s the inevitable visual humour – M. Gustave making a run for it when he realises the military police led by Inspector Henckels (Norton) believe he murdered Madame D.; the entrance to Field Post 19; the painting put in place of Boy with Apple – verbal wisecracks and one-liners, and plotting that never falters in its ability to raise a smile.  There’s a sure hand at work here, and Anderson steers things with astounding ease, making each development seem as plausible as possible given the layers of absurdity and beautifully judged lunacy that have already gone before.

The world he’s created, with all its foibles and social hierarchies, is beautifully rendered, each scene a glorious testament to Anderson’s exquisite eye for composition and framing, each aspect of the costumes and the set design and the props supporting his vision to the point where this is a completely credible world, even if the events are often in-credible.  This is a movie that has something going on in almost every frame, and is ravishing to look at on so many levels.  The performances are uniformly excellent, from Fiennes’ effortless turn as the exacting lothario M. Gustave, to Revolori’s deadpan incarnation of the younger Moustafa, to the minor roles (watch for the other concierges); everyone is pitch perfect.

So, is The Grand Budapest Hotel as good as, if not better than Moonrise Kingdom?  Alas, it’s not, but it’s very close.  There are some jarring elements – the modern-day swearing comes across as harsh and out-of-place – and the framing devices (the tales within tales) don’t add anything to the mix, while there’s not quite the heart that infused Moonrise Kingdom and made it so impressive.  But this is still one of Anderson’s best, and an absolute must-see nevertheless.

Rating: 8/10 – a beautiful, funny adventure set in a fairytale location and brimming with wit and inventiveness; a chocolate box of goodies that will fill you up but leave you still wanting more.

Mini-Review: Jeune & jolie (2013)

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Jeune et Jolie

D: François Ozon / 95m

Cast: Marine Vacth, Géraldine Pailhas, Frédéric Pierrot, Fantin Ravat, Johan Leysen, Charlotte Rampling

During the summer holidays, newly-seventeen Isabelle (Vacth) loses her virginity, but the experience has an unexpected and altogether darker effect on her: she becomes a prostitute. She meets men in hotel rooms, in particular Georges (Leysen), an elderly man who treats her with kindness. Naturally, her family, mother Sylvie (Pailhas), stepfather Patrick (Pierrot), and younger brother Victor (Ravat), know nothing of her activities outside school. It’s only when one of her customers dies while they are having sex, that everything comes out.

Jeune & jolie is a compelling movie, made more so by an amazing performance from Vacth, making only her fourth screen appearance. She perfectly captures that awkward period in a teenage girl’s life where the need to be an adult is so overwhelming it can lead to the worst decisions. Whether arguing with her mother, or trying to make a “normal” relationship work, Vacth is always convincing; there’s not a single off-note in her entire performance. She’s ably supported by the rest of the cast – including a quietly emotional performance by Rampling as Georges’ widow – and by a script that refuses to be predictable or pedantic in its approach; it’s a testament to the quality of the screenplay that Isabelle’s reasons for becoming a prostitute are never clearly given, and the audience never feels cheated as a result.

Ozon’s direction is as captivating and intelligent as always, and each character is clearly delineated and given room to grow. The movie takes place over a year and the seasonal changes resonate with the characters and their development – it’s no surprise that Isabelle’s family discover what she’s been doing in winter. Fascinating from start to finish, with a central performance that is incredibly assured, this beguiling movie bears more than one viewing to ensure none of its complexities are missed.

Rating: 8/10 – a riveting movie that makes a virtue of being evasive in its lead character’s motivations; a potent reminder of just how courageous and thought-provoking French cinema can be when it wants to.

Reasonable Doubt (2014)

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Reasonable Doubt

D: Peter P. Croudins / 91m

Cast: Dominic Cooper, Samuel L. Jackson, Gloria Reuben, Ryan Robbins, Erin Karpluk, Dylan Taylor

Pop quiz: You’re a mega-successful district attorney who’s never lost a case.  After a night out celebrating another win in court, and having had a few drinks, you still drive home because you’re worried your car might be stolen while you take a taxi.  On the way, you hit and injure a man.  Do you: a) call for an ambulance using your mobile phone and stay with the man until it arrives? b) call for an ambulance by using a pay phone and then drive off? or c) carry on driving and don’t look back?  If you answered b, then give yourself a gold star.

This is what hot shot DA Mitch Brockden (Cooper) does, and inevitably it sets in motion a series of events that ends with his wife, Rachel (Karpluk) and newborn child Ella being put in mortal danger.  In between those two events, Mitch gets an uncomfortable case of the guilts.  When Clinton Davis (Jackson) is arrested with the injured man – who is now dead – in his car later that evening, Davis’s assertion that he had found the man and was trying to get him to a hospital rings true with Mitch, even though Davis has tools in his car that match the weapons that caused the man’s other injuries.  When Davis is charged with the man’s murder, it’s Mitch who gets to prosecute him.

For reasons too tiresome and unlikely to reveal here, Mitch’s estranged step-brother Jimmy (Robbins) testifies at the trial that he saw the hit and run.  Davis is freed.  Soon after, another man is found dead with similar injuries.  Mitch now believes Davis did kill the man he knocked down, and when investigating Detective Kanon (Reuben) mentions other incidents that Davis is connected to, Mitch is convinced of Davis’s guilt.  He decides to investigate further, but soon finds that Davis is more dangerous than he expected.

It’s not that the whole scenario of Reasonable Doubt is far-fetched, or that the motivations of both Mitch and Davis are about as convincing as a politician’s probity, nor even that the level of credibility is undermined continually by Cooper’s lacklustre performance – he demonstrates guilt by looking as if his haemorrhoids are playing up – it’s more that no one stopped to take stock of the movie while it was being made and said, “Hold on, isn’t this just the biggest load of rubbish?”  If someone had, then perhaps we’d all have been spared this poor excuse for a thriller.  As it is, the audience has to endure scene after scene of disjointed dialogue, uncomfortable plot contrivances, woeful acting (Cooper and Reuben are the worst offenders), and such dreadful direction that Peter Howitt’s name is changed in the credits (see above).

It’s always frustrating when movies like this are made.  Reasonable Doubt could have been so much better, but the script by Peter A. Dowling comes across as a hastily assembled first draft.  There is very little internal logic on display, and what there is is so ridiculous that even if you suspended all credulity you’d still be asking yourself if what you were seeing was really happening.  The character of Mitch bears no resemblance to anyone in real life, he makes risky decisions based more on the script’s need for him to do so than any actual self-motivation, and for someone who is so good at his job – so much so that he knows a judge’s decision before he even makes it – he makes one stupid mistake after another, until he ends up arrested for the attempted murder of his step-brother.

And then the movie presents us with it’s most ridiculous and stupid moment: after receiving a call from Davis who tells him he’s going to kill Rachel and Ella, and after he overpowers a police officer, Mitch walks out of the police station without being stopped and while carrying the police officer’s gun!  He doesn’t even try to hide it, just walks out with it in his hand!  It’s when a script offers this as a development, and no one stops to say “Hold on, isn’t this just the biggest load of complete rubbish?” that you know no one really cares.  So why should the audience?

There are – amazingly – worse thrillers out there, but these are mostly low-budget affairs with semi-professional casts and inexperienced directors.  Here, there’s a level of conspicuous ability but it’s all for nought.  Even Jackson phones in his performance, giving us a less intense, less convincing version of his character from Meeting Evil (2012).  You could say that Reasonable Doubt is so bad it’s mesmerising… but that would be a whole other load of rubbish.

Rating: 3/10 – dreadful thriller that insults its own cast as well as the audience; proof if any were needed that some movies should have their productions shut down after day one.

Dick Figures: The Movie (2013)

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Dick Figures The Movie

D: Ed Skudder, Zack Keller / 73m

Cast: Ed Skudder, Zack Keller, Eric Bauza, Ben Tuller, Shea Logsdon, Mike Nassar, Chad Quandt, Lauren K. Sokolov

If you’ve not seen any of the Dick Figures webisodes – all available to view on YouTube – then don’t worry about watching the movie first.  Although there are some references that only fans will get e.g. the poster in Blue’s room for Flame War 4, some of the titles on his bookshelf, and Stacey’s sister, Dick Figures: The Movie works just as well as a stand-alone movie.

Providing Red (Skudder) and Blue (Keller) with an origin story, Dick Figures: The Movie sees our heroes twenty-five years on from their first meeting, and with no change in their circumstances: Red is still a self-absorbed, party hound who’ll try and have sex with almost any female he sees.  Blue is still enamoured of Pink (Logsdon), and with her birthday fast approaching, Blue wants to get her the most amazing present ever.  He and Red go to local store Ancient Secrets ‘n’ Things where owner Raccoon (Skudder) tells them about the fabled Sword of Destiny, its part in Raccoon’s family history, and how it has been divided into three parts and the parts hidden around the world.  Giving them a map to help find the various parts, Red and Blue agree to find and unite the pieces, and provide Pink with the best birthday present ever.

Their journey take them to Japan where they find the hilt of the sword and run into Lord Takagami (Bauza).  Takagami also seeks the Sword of Destiny, and after a narrow escape from his ninja-demons, Red and Blue find themselves on a deserted island.  Miraculously rescued by blind pilot Captain Crookygrin (Skudder), the pair end up in Paris.  There they meet their friend Lord Tourettes (Tuller) who helps them find the second piece of the Sword, the blade, located at the top of the Eiffel Tower.  The trail then leads them back to their own hometown and a nearby mountain they’ve never seen before.  They find the remaining piece, a jewel, but are ambushed by Lord Takagami and his ninja-demons.  Will Red and Blue defeat the evil Lord and his minions?  Will Pink get her most amazing birthday present ever?  And will Red let Blue plunge to his death into the maw of Ochomuerte?

Fleshing out the two to five minute webisodes into a feature-length movie may have seemed like a risky move but creator Ed Skudder along with co-director and writer Zack Keller have done a great job.  Although Red has a minimal character and story arc, Blue is given more of an “upgrade” and he has an emotional arc that suits the storyline.  As the two friends set out to retrieve the missing Sword, Red’s selfish behaviour threatens to derail their adventure at (almost) every turn.  It’s a mark of Skudder and Keller’s astute writing that even when Red is being the biggest asshole possible, he’s still likeable and fun to watch.  Blue’s exasperation with his friend’s behaviour is understandable but there’s still an element of envy that Red can be so “carefree” when Blue feels so much responsibility, and for pretty much everything.  Their bromance is entirely credible and anchors the movie when everything else is so gloriously anarchic.

And make no mistake, Dick Figures: The Movie is not your average Disney animation; far from it.  Red and Blue’s debut movie is surreal, bizarre, scabrous, scatological, puerile (in places), exciting, captivating, deranged, absurd, outlandish, crazy, disgusting, violent, and so over the top it makes South Park look boring.  With this much warped imagination on display, the movie barely stops for breath at any time during its (sadly) brief running time.  There is a car chase through the streets of Paris that is as adrenalin-fuelled as anything in a Fast and Furious movie, and a parkour-style chase through a Japanese harbour that is as giddily inventive as anything in recent US animation.  It’s obvious that Skudder and Keller know their action movies, and with a finale involving a giant demon, their cult Asian movies as well.  And it’s just so damned funny.

Having a bigger budget – as well as allowing the inclusion of the aforementioned action sequences – has also given Skudder et al the room to provide more detailed backgrounds than in the webisodes, play around with different styles of animation, and to include a better level of visual effects (their explosions are so much more, well, explosive).  Each character is clearly delineated from the rest, either by colour or physical appearance, and while Skudder contributes most of the vocalisations (thirteen in all), the work of Keller, Bauza and Tuller, all webisode regulars, adds to the richness of the performances.

Standing apart from the crowd, both in terms of content and its look, Dick Figures: The Movie will obviously appeal to fans first, but there’s so much here to entertain even a casual observer, that it would be a major disappointment if the movie didn’t find a wider audience.  A second outing for Red and Blue would be something to look forward to indeed.

Rating: 8/10 – an unqualified delight and a must-see for fans of low-budget but distinctive animated story-telling; and despite the often crude humour, a movie with a lot of heart and soul as well.

Fear Island (2009)

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Fear Island

D: Michael Storey / 95m

Cast: Aaron Ashmore, Haylie Duff, Lucy Hale, Kyle Schmid, Anne Marie DeLuise, Martin Cummins, Jacob Blair, Jessica Harmon, Jim Thorburn

Told in flashback by the lone survivor of a group of teens spending one last summer vacation together, and who find themselves at the mercy of a killer, Fear Island is a mystery/thriller/horror movie that tries to throw in more twists than a Chubby Checker dance competition.  When Jenna (Duff) is found covered in blood and clutching a knife she is immediately arrested by Detective Armory (Cummins).  Before he can bully a confession from her, police psychologist Dr Chalice (DeLuise) takes charge, and slowly, Jenna – who has very little memory of what took place – begins to tell the story of what happened on the island.

As Jenna recalls the events that led to the deaths of her friends, it looks at first as if there is a killer on the island with them, but then it appears that the killer may be one of the group – but who?  A further mystery unfolds surrounding the death of another girl the year before – were the friends involved, and are they being targeted because of it?  And is Jenna telling the truth about what happened, or is she warping the story to avoid incriminating herself?

There’s a moment during Fear Island when one of the characters goes in search of her dog – alone – in the woods – by herself.  As this hoary old device is trotted out for the four billionth time, the full extent of the movie’s reliance on horror cliches becomes all too apparent.  As well as the brooding member of the group who is the initial suspect, through to the ripped devil-may-care lothario who cares only about himself, Fear Island allows itself the merest nod to adequate characterisation, throws in a few red herrings, and tries to make its mystery more difficult to unravel than it actually is.  The scenes with Jenna, Dr Chalice and Detective Armory are risible, and as a result, Duff struggles to maintain any continuity of tone or emotional distress.  The rest of the cast fare equally as badly, with only Ashmore providing a performance that keeps itself a few notches above adequate.

The island location is underused, and any sense of terror is undermined by director Storey’s inability to create tension or increasing dread.  The script is largely to blame, but the execution is so ham-fisted it just makes matters worse.  The action is often poorly framed and the editing seems intent on removing all tension or thrills from the murder sequences.  By the movie’s end, it’s as much a relief for the audience as it must have been for the cast and crew when filming was completed.

Rating: 3/10 – an underwhelming combination of I Know What You Did Last Summer and The Usual Suspects, Fear Island fails to generate any excitement at any stage of the proceedings; one for single location murder mystery enthusiasts only.

Originally posted on thedullwoodexperiment website.

Pressed (2011)

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Pressed

D: Justin Donnelly / 105m

Cast: Luke Goss, Tyler Johnston, Jeffrey Ballard, Michael Eklund, Erica Carroll, Craig Stanghetta

When affluent sales executive Brian (Goss) is let go from his job, the childhood trauma he experienced when his father had to declare himself bankrupt, stops him from telling his wife Leanne (Carroll), and soon puts him on the path to contemplating desperate measures.  These arise from a chance encounter with an old schoolmate, Jimmy (Eklund).  Jimmy persuades Brian to go in with him on a quick fire money-making scheme that – so Brian believes – will enable him to stave off his immediate financial problems and also give him time to find another job.  Meanwhile, teen Jesse (Johnston) is looking to get out of town and make something of his life.  He seeks help from his friend Sam (Ballard).  Soon enough, Jesse and Brian cross paths and find their lives are on the line, as Jimmy’s get-rich-quick scheme goes horribly wrong for both of them.

Written and directed by first-timer Donnelly, Pressed benefits most from a committed performance by Goss, and by Donnelly’s attempts to try something different in an already over-stuffed genre.  At first, Goss plays Brian as a naive bystander in his own life, and while this isn’t necessarily the first description you’d apply to an actor like Goss, he pulls off these early scenes with sweaty conviction.  As the movie continues and he has to “man up”, Goss shows Brian’s transition from mild-mannered businessman to determined protagonist with clarity and conviction.

In the director’s chair, Donnelly orchestrates with a (largely) sure hand, allowing his script to play out unhurriedly, and with a greater focus on characterisation than is usual for this type of movie.  A strong case in point is the character of Jimmy, played with brio by Eklund.  Jimmy is a perfect example of how a stereotypical role can be imbued with enough additional nuances to overcome any expected deficiencies.  When Eklund is on screen, his portrayal is so effective you can’t keep your eyes off him.

Where Donnelly does falter is with the movie’s timescale.  When Brian arrives home after being laid off, Leanne and their young son (Ethan Sawyer) are going on holiday for a week.  As the story unfolds it’s clear that events are happening after this period should be up, and yet they don’t return home.  Also, Brian has his car repossessed within a couple of days of being let go – is that really likely?  Against this, Donnelly’s script does avoid the usual cliches, and even finds time for Brian to provide Jesse with some fatherly advice, albeit in the unlikeliest of circumstances.  And the final scenes allow for a pleasing ambiguity.

As the two teens caught up in Brian’s problems, Johnston and Ballard provide strong performances.  Johnston imbues Jesse with a vulnerability that is never at odds with his outwardly tough manner, and is a name to watch out for (though he does have extensive experience in television).  Ballard acquits himself with equal distinction, taking a less showy character in comparison to Jesse, but making him just as memorable.

The action, when it happens, is well choreographed, and the photography by Norm Li – while occasionally lax in terms of framing – has a gritty feel to it, matching the increasingly fervid atmosphere.  The final showdown is tenser than expected, and doesn’t cheat the viewer, giving Brian the chance to make things right on more than a personal level, and convincingly draw the movie to an end.

Rating: 6/10 – the too familiar mise-en-scene detracts from the all-round effectiveness of Donnelly’s debut but it maintains a grim credibility thanks largely to Goss’s well-judged performance; careful plotting gives it an edge over many of its contemporaries.

Originally posted on thedullwoodexperiment website.

Mini-Review: Trap Street (2013)

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Trap Street

D: Vivian Qu / 93m

Cast: Yulai Lu, Wenchao He, Yong Hou, Xiaofei Zhao, Tiejian Liu, Xinghong Li

One of the few independent Chinese films to be made last year – and yet to be seen by China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (the movie industry’s governing body) – Trap Street starts off as an agreeable and potentially predictable romantic drama, as Qiuming (Lu) meets Lifen (He) and they begin a relationship. Lifen, though, is often gone for days at a time and acts mysteriously as well. Eventually, Qiuming discovers that Lifen works at a secret government laboratory, and the real idea behind the movie begins to show itself. When a pair of USB sticks that belong where Lifen works, end up in Qiuming’s hands for a while, the authorities react by keeping Lifen in a hotel for a couple of days and grilling him over it. Despite not accessing the USB sticks, the authorities refuse to believe he’s left them unaccessed or uncopied. Can Qiuming convince them of his innocence, or will he be arrested and charged with domestic terrorism?

This situation – an individual being detained by the police for 2-3 days without being charged or even formally arrested, and then let go – is increasingly common in modern-day China, and even happened to a friend of one of the crew members shortly after the movie was made. Why this happens so often no-one knows, but it makes for an interesting and absorbing movie, and shows the aftermath of denial and paranoia that all too often accompanies the detainment. Along with a pertinent assessment of the various ways technology allows us to interact with each other on a variety of emotional levels, Trap Street is an intelligent, thought-provoking movie that holds a mirror up to contemporary Chinese culture, and shows that, despite recent openings up to Western influences, there is still a very strict political machine in place that governs people’s lives. Vivian Qu, whose first feature this is, directs with skill and an eye for off-kilter framings that accentuate the odd things taking place. On this evidence, any future movies she chooses to make will be well worth watching.

Rating: 8/10 – a confident approach to the material keeps the viewer engrossed from beginning to end; good performances and an incisive script make Trap Street well worth checking out.

Filth and Wisdom (2008)

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Filth and Wisdom

D: Madonna / 80m

Cast: Eugene Hutz, Holly Weston, Vicky McClure, Richard E. Grant, Inder Manocha, Elliot Levey, Francesca Kingdon, Clare Wilkie, Stephen Graham, Hannah Walters, Shobu Kapoor

A somewhat philosophically inclined comedy surrounding three flatmates, A.K. (Hutz), Holly (Weston) and Juliette (McClure), Filth and Wisdom charts their attempts to find love, job fulfilment, and to make sense of their lives.

A.K. works as a dom (a male dominatrix), while Holly is a struggling dancer, and Juliette works in a chemist’s.  All three of them are floundering through life, trying to get ahead but never getting further than where they are.  When he isn’t abusing middle-aged men for money, A.K. is a furrow-browed philosopher, keen to point out the futilities of life or the conundrums of existence as he sees them.  Hutz – the lead singer of gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello – spends most of the movie spouting apothegms and cod-literate sayings to camera.  Some of these sayings strive for importance and/or relevance to the events happening elsewhere in the movie but they have a poor success rate.

Holly attends regular dance lessons but seems to be getting no further in her ambition to be a dancer.  She visits a club and is offered a job there by the owner, Harry Beechman (Graham).  She agrees to audition only to find the job is pole dancing.  Terrible at it at first, she is taken under the wing of Francine (Kingdon), and soon becomes more confident.

Meanwhile, Juliette is treading water at the chemists’s, run by Sardeep (Manocher).  She steals pills off the shelves when he’s not looking though she doesn’t seem to have a drug problem; she’s just bored and wants to do something more meaningful.  She has a running battle with Sardeep over which charity collection box is more deserving: starving Africans or starving Asians.  All the while she is unaware that Sardeep – who is married – is attracted to her.

Downstairs from the three flatmates lives blind Professor Flynn (Grant).  A.K. gets his groceries for him and spends time with him.  Flynn is a melancholy figure surrounded by books he can no longer read.  As the movie progresses he becomes more and more withdrawn.

Filth and Wisdom drew some unfavourable criticism when it was first released, and to be fair some of it is justifiable.  A.K. is just the kind of waffle-spouting poseur you’d cross the road to avoid.  This isn’t Hutz’s fault, it’s just the way the character’s written.  In fact, Hutz does well enough to create a modestly well-rounded character when he’s interacting with others, especially in his scenes with Professor Flynn.  Otherwise, when he’s talking to camera you just wish he’d get it over with.

Given roughly equal screen time, Weston and McClure fare better for having more straightforward roles, and both actresses shine.  Grant’s role is a little more complex but Professor Flynn is a secondary character, and once the script reaches a certain point, his storyline is discontinued.  The supporting cast, particularly Manocher, fare equally well, and there’s a lovely scene between Holly and Professor Flynn at a restaurant, but what scuppers Filth and Wisdom is its lack of focus from one scene to the next.  When Hutz is on screen it’s almost as if he’s acting in another movie entirely, and some scenes have a Seventies feel to them, as if Madonna’s main point of reference for filming in the UK was sitcoms from that era, such as Man About the House or Love Thy Neighbour; for such a cosmopolitan city, London comes across as parochial and insular.

And then there is the final scene.  It takes place at a Gogol Bordello concert and unites all the main characters, including a suddenly much happier Professor Flynn.  As if that isn’t jarring enough, there’s been no previous indication that A.K. is in a band at all.  Still, maybe it was a contractual obligation for Hutz appearing in the movie.

Filth and Wisdom isn’t quite as bad as some people would have it, but it does fall down far too often for its own good (although it does always get back up on its feet and try again – you can’t fault it for that).  Madonna, making her directorial debut, contributes some haphazard direction, while the script, which she co-wrote with Dan Cadan, shouldn’t have tried to sum up the trials and tribulations of daily life as it does.  The photography is dull, reflecting the environs in which it was shot, and the music – for a Madonna movie – isn’t entirely memorable.  However, the movie does manage to hold the viewer’s attention and there are far worse movies you could spend eighty minutes watching.

Rating: 5/10 – not bad, but not good, and too casual in its set up, Filth and Wisdom doesn’t always make as much sense as it thinks it does; with little wisdom (and even less filth) on display, the movie ends up failing to convince.

Originally posted on thedullwoodexperiment website.

Recreator (2012)

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Recreator

aka Cloned: The Recreator Chronicles

D: Gregory Orr / 90m

Cast: Stella Maeve, Alexander Nifong, Jamal Mallory-McCree, John de Lancie, Laura Moss

A trio of teens, Tracy (Maeve), Craig (Nifong) and Derek (Mallory-McCree), arrive at lake-bound Brewster Island for a camping trip.  They spy a house above the treelike and when Tracy decides she’d rather the bathroom than go in the woods, she unwittingly sets in motion events that will put all their lives in danger.  That night there is a terrible storm, complete with lightning, and the trio decide to throw all aims of camping out of the tent and take refuge in the house.  The next morning the owners (de Lancie, Moss) return from the mainland.  When they realise someone has been in their house, they react in a totally unexpected way: they coerce the trio into helping them bury the real owners – who they resemble exactly.

At this stage of the movie the plot introduces the duplicates of Tracy, Craig and Derek, and becomes a battle of wills between the two trios.  The duplicates – or clones – are stronger, more intelligent and above all, unscrupulous; they plan to kill the original trio as soon as possible.  Initially unaware of this, Tracy, Craig and Derek are still mistrustful of the whole situation, but seem more content to argue amongst themselves about what to do.  In the end, Derek leaves the island to get help.  While he’s gone, Tracy’s clone begins to develop feelings for Craig, while Craig’s clone attempts to seduce Tracy.  And all the while, Tracy and Craig try to work out why all this is happening…

Recreator begins well, with a couple of eerie, atmospheric sequences involving the house’s owners, but then fails to make its trio of original protagonists even remotely likeable.  Derek is arrogant, Tracy is self-absorbed, and Craig is wetter than water.  When their clones show up it’s almost a relief, as they truly are “better” than the real thing.  However, this is probably to allow for the dramatic aspects of the story to be heightened.  We know the clones are inherently bad, and we know that there will be a showdown at the end, and we know that there will be a large degree of proselytising from the clones about the world needing them more than the originals, and we also know that Tracy and Craig will discover the reason why all this is happening… but… will it be worth sticking around to find out?

The answer is yes and no.  Writer/director Orr has hit on a great idea for a movie, but in putting it all together, he’s taken a scattershot approach to his material.  The relationships appear culled from an indie movie, the sci-fi elements from any number of Fifties’ mad scientist outings, and the overall feel is like watching any of the first four Friday the 13th movies but without the gratuitous gore or semi-nudity.  The dialogue varies too, from faux-existential to banal to (possibly) semi-improvised.  Orr’s direction too is often off-balance, as if the mix of styles is problematical for him: some scenes are played as sinister when they should be more straightforwardly dramatic, while others have a latent humour that passes by either unacknowledged or under-utilised.

On the plus side, Maeve, Nifong and Mallory-McCree do well with roles that require them to play two sides of the same personality, and the necessary split-screen work is well done, particularly in a lake-set scene involving both Tracys.  The raison d’être for everything is laid out well, and while the latter day mechanics of it are a bit suspect – they involve a cesspit of all things – the lake bound setting keeps the action believably contained.  The music by Jeff Carruthers and Rick Conrad is effective, and David Tumblety’s photography, while not striking, does create a distinctive mood that fits with the storyline.  Even with the caveats mentioned above, Recreator is mostly engaging and even thought-provoking on occasion.

The movie ends with the legend To be continued.  If Orr gets a better grip on his ideas and material, then a sequel will be something to look forward to.

Rating: 6/10 – problems with the script knock this movie down a point; however, all problems aside, there’s enough here to warrant more than a cursory glance.

Originally posted on thedullwoodexperiment website.

RoboCop (2014)

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QUAD_UK_ROBO_101294f.indd

D: José Padilha / 117m

Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Harley, Michael K. Williams, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Samuel L. Jackson, Aimee Garcia, Douglas Urbanski, John Paul Ruttan, Patrick Garrow, Zach Grenier

With the Eighties being increasingly plundered for material that can be remade, rebooted or re-imagined, the likelihood of a new RoboCop movie was always a strong possibility.  Now that it’s here, it’s inevitable that the comparisons between this version and Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 original are appearing thick and fast, with equally inevitable results: it’s not the same (shock! horror!).

From the black suit to the addition of a wife and child, RoboCop is – and was always going to be – a different beast from its predecessor(s) (let’s not even mention the animated and live action TV series’).  Some things remain the same though.  Alex Murphy (Kinnaman) is still a Detroit cop, working with his partner, Jack Lewis (Williams) to bring down crime boss Antoine Vallon (Garrow).  When the pair get too close, Lewis is wounded in a shootout and Murphy is subsequently blown up outside his home.  With his life hanging in the balance, OmniCorp boss Raymond Sellars (Keaton) offers his wife Clara (Cornish) a way to keep Alex alive: sign up to their research programme, headed by Dr Norton (Oldman).

Three months later, Alex is restored to waking consciousness to find himself encased in a metal suit and horrified by what is happening to him.  After an escape attempt fails he begins to accept the reality of his situation and works with Norton to make the best of things and, more importantly, find his way back to Clara and his son David (Ruttan).  With a projected annual return of $600 billion if their robot police programme is a success – and if a bill banning robot police officers is repealed by the Senate – OmniCorp is determined not to let Alex’s individuality ruin their investment.  They take steps to control his emotional and judgmental responses, but reckon without his love for his family – and his need for revenge on Vallon – overriding their protocols.  Soon, Alex begins to understand the depth of Sellars’ duplicity, and with his partner’s help, sets out to – yes, you’ve guessed it – bring Sellars to justice.

Although Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner – the screenwriters of the 1987 version – are credited alongside newbie Josh Zetumer, little remains from their script except various names, the Detroit location, and the movie’s basic structure.  It’s not a bad (exo-)skeleton to hang things on and ensures the movie doesn’t stray too far from the (in-built) audience’s expectations.  The major difference here is that Alex isn’t killed but is critically injured, making his memories and emotions a much more potent angle to explore… except the movie doesn’t.  With the exception of a brief (read: cut short in the editing process) scene where Alex goes home for the first time as RoboCop, there’s no real exploration of what Alex might be feeling beyond having Kinnaman look aggrieved for a few moments in-between the action elements.

There’s also a lot of talking.  RoboCop may be the first action movie in a long time to spend so much of its screen time having its secondary characters talk so often, and to so little effect.  Jackson ramps it up as a thinly disguised version of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, spouting diatribes as only he can, and providing the movie with its thinly disguised attack on corporate America and the media as devious bedfellows (Jackson also gets to say m*thaf*cka, so some things are all right with the world).  And then there’s the continual back-and-forth between Sellars and Norton where Norton voices a concern or a negative opinion, and Sellars just waffles a few sentences and Norton goes away appeased.  (I swear I have no idea what Michael Keaton is saying in those scenes.)

With all this dialogue and by-the-numbers plotting, how then do the action scenes fare?  Well, one first-person shooter sequence aside (which sticks out like a sore thumb), RoboCop delivers fairly effective if unexceptional action beats until it wimps out altogether and gives us one of the most ineffectual showdowns in action cinema history (look for the well-armed guard who doesn’t fire a shot – no, look for him: once RoboCop appears he all but vanishes).  And if I have to make one comparison only between this version and the 1987 movie, it’s that Vallon is a poor, practically disposable villain when set against Clarence Boddicker.

The cast perform efficiently enough and Kinnaman makes for a strong-jawed hero, while Oldman does his best with a character whose motivations change from scene to scene (and sometimes within them).  Keaton underplays Sellars and only occasionally shows off the nervous energy that made him so exciting to watch earlier on in his career, and Baruchel gets to play the annoying marketing character you hope gets killed by an ED-209.  As Clara, Cornish has little to do but look angry or upset from the sidelines, and Jean-Baptiste (so brilliant in Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies) is here reduced to treading water until her character is no longer required by the narrative.

Padilha directs with an efficiency and a drive that never quite translates into sustained tension, and there are too many filler shots of RoboCop zooming through the streets of Detroit on his customised motorbike.  That said, there are things to like: Lula Carvalho’s steel-burnished photography; Murphy’s treatment of hired mercenary Mattox (Haley) after a training exercise; a short scene where a man with robotic hands plays the guitar; Mattox’s choice of music during Murphy’s first training session (plus Norton’s bemused response); the seamless special effects, a predictably vast improvement on 1987; and the movie’s best scene by far: the moment when Murphy discovers just how much of himself fills the suit.

Ultimately, what’s missing from RoboCop is a clear attempt at relating the emotional trauma of being a man in a “tin suit”.  Without it, RoboCop doesn’t engage in the way it should do, and many scenes pass by without having any meaningful effect on the audience.  It makes for frustrating viewing, and robs the movie of any real drama; sadly, it all ends up being just too impersonal.

Rating: 6/10 – a tidier script would have helped but this is by no means a disaster; a shaky start to a new series of movies(?) but enjoyable enough despite its flaws.

The Wendell Baker Story (2005)

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Wendell Baker Story, The

D: Andrew Wilson, Luke Wilson / 99m

Cast: Luke Wilson, Eva Mendes, Seymour Cassel, Harry Dean Stanton, Owen Wilson, Eddie Griffin, Jacob Vargas, Kris Kristofferson, Will Ferrell

The less successful of the Wilson brothers, Luke has had a patchy career in comparison with his older, A-list sibling Owen, but he’s often provided audiences with more enjoyable offerings – Henry Poole Is Here vs Drillbit Taylor anyone? – even if they haven’t had the same box office success. In The Wendell Baker Story, Luke enlists his brother’s help in telling the story of a man who sells counterfeit driving licences to illegal immigrants before a spell in jail shows him his true calling in life: working in the hotel industry. But when he’s finally paroled, he finds himself working at a retirement home instead.

The home, Shady Grove, is run by Neil King (Owen Wilson). King isn’t interested in providing proper care for the residents, and is running a scam that he thinks Wendell will be the perfect patsy for if it comes to light (the scam involves him falsifying residents’ being there but still claiming their pensions and selling their medication on the black market). As Wendell gets to know everyone better, including Boyd Fullbright (Cassel) and Skip Summers (Stanton), he begins to realise just how bad things are at Shady Grove. With the help of reclusive resident Nasher (Kristofferson), and ex-associate from his driving licence days, Reyes (Vargas), Wendell, Boyd and Skip travel to King’s mother’s home – where the supposed “residents” are actually being hidden – to rescue them and so expose King’s scheme.

Alongside this, Wendell is trying to win back the love of his life, Doreen (Mendes). They were together before he went to prison but while he was inside, Doreen moved on and is now seeing a supermarket owner, Dave (Ferrell). Wendell makes a couple of clumsy attempts to win her back but he doesn’t reckon on just how disillusioned Doreen is with him, even if he is trying to get his life back on track.

Wendell himself is an endearing character, Wilson’s boyish charm going a long way to making the audience like him. He has an innate goodness that anyone can see a mile off, and a small measure of naiveté to match. He gets along with anyone and is able to mend bridges between people (though the prison scene where he gets the Aryans and the Crips to gather in a group hug is a little too far-fetched). But as much as Wendell is a nice guy he’s also a little dull, and Wilson doesn’t add much else to the mix to make him more interesting. That’s left to Cassel and Stanton who make each scene they’re in that much more watchable, especially when they chat up two young women at a store; they inhabit their roles in a way that Wilson doesn’t. The older Wilson is the same, putting in only half a performance and coasting his way through the movie, leaving King looking less like a serious adversary and more like an unconvincing playground bully.

However, the fault for all this lies squarely at the feet of Luke Wilson. As the movie’s writer, star and co-director (with the eldest Wilson brother), Luke fumbles the ball in terms of characterisation and story. Everything is done with a light touch, as if the idea of adding some depth to the movie was anathema, or might spoil the overall effect. While this doesn’t make for a bad movie per se, it does undermine its potential; it’s still enjoyable on a superficial what-you-see-is-what-you-get level, but viewers will probably have seen many other similar movies already. And here, familiarity comes very close to breeding apathy rather than contempt.

But somehow, despite all this, The Wendell Baker Story does raise more smiles than groans, and Wilson’s goofy demeanour does endear. The by-the-numbers plot still works somehow, and the underlying message – that our elders should be treated with respect and as still-valuable members of society – is put across without too much sermonising. Cassel and Stanton are a pleasure to watch (Stanton should do more comedy while he can), there’s a couple of good sight gags, and Ferrell contributes a great cameo.

Rating: 5/10 – in school grade terms, The Wendell Baker Story earns a C- and a recommendation to do better; lacklustre for the most part but amusing enough to save it from being a complete dud.

Springsteen & I (2013)

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Springsteen & I

D: Baillie Walsh / 124m

A documentary with a difference, Springsteen & I isn’t a straightforward trawl through the life and triumphs of the man they call The Boss, but a kind of accidental biography, a look back over his life, certainly, but at a remove, and as seen through the eyes of his fans (and one non-fan). It’s a novel approach, and one that conveniently circumvents any danger of the intended subject deciding he or she doesn’t want anything to do with the project (though here, Springsteen has generously allowed previously unseen live footage to be used).

So instead of The Boss talking about the ups and downs of his forty-year plus career, we get The Boss’s fans talking about their ups and downs in relation to him over the course of that career. In particular, we hear from three people who have shared the limelight with Bruce: a young woman who joined him on stage after waving a banner that stated “I’ll be ur Courteney Cox” (a reference to Cox’s appearing in the Dancing in the Dark video); an Elvis impersonator who sang Hound Dog with Bruce live on stage (and cheekily tried to add Blue Suede Shoes before realising he’d outstayed his welcome); and a musician who jammed with Bruce on a New York street. All three “collaborations” were filmed and it’s these instances that perhaps give the best insight into the man himself. Here, Springsteen comes across as unselfish, at ease with both his personal and professional image, genuinely supportive of others, and – this won’t be the first time it’s been mentioned – a really nice guy.

The rest of the movie follows a similar line, with fans queuing up to say how wonderful he is and how his music has had a profound influence on their lives, from the woman who plays nothing but Springsteen on her car stereo (her kids know not to ask for anything else), to the couple who have never seen him live but feel blessed to have his music enriching their lives, to the British fan who found himself and his wife given an unexpected upgrade at Madison Square Garden that saw them move from the very upper reaches of the venue to the front row itself; all these stories reinforce the positive effects Springsteen and his music have had on so many different people over so many years.

Much is made of Springsteen’s writing about and for the working class in America, the blue collar part of the electorate who seem to have their hopes and dreams denied them time and time again, but remain determined to make something of their lives. This struggle is a recurring theme in Springsteen’s music, and finds it’s most apt expression in the comments made by a female trucker who has found empowerment through his lyrics.

Of course, the average viewer’s tolerance for all this will depend on their appreciation of Springsteen and how much of his music is familiar to them. Fans will lap this up, and are likely to derive intense satisfaction from seeing their own views reflected back at them, while those less familiar with The Boss’s output will quickly wonder if there’s going to be any alternative to all the cheery – but still heartfelt – eulogising (there is – twice – but they’re brief moments, although the second has one of the best responses to an off-camera question you’re ever likely to hear).

With other fans providing succinct three word appraisals of Springsteen – though some struggle to stop at three – as well as plenty of concert footage taken from various periods of Springsteen’s career (including a very early acoustic performance of Growin’ Up), the movie benefits greatly from the choices director Walsh has made for inclusion and the sure-handed editorial approach taken with the material. A word of caution though: the documentary proper ends around the eighty minute mark. The rest of the movie is taken up by live footage taken from Springsteen’s London concert in 2012 (and featuring Paul McCartney on a couple of Beatles tracks), and following that, a real surprise for the viewer (and some of the fans).

Rating: 8/10 – a well-constructed documentary that avoids any accusations of superficiality by virtue of the obvious sincerity of its participants; a treat for fans and a reminder of Springsteen’s enduring musical legacy.

The Book Thief (2013)

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Book Thief, The

D: Brian Percival / 131m

Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nélisse, Ben Schnetzer, Nico Liersch, Levin Liam, Rainer Bock, Barbara Auer, Roger Allam

Literary adaptations are a perilous thing, both for filmmakers and audiences alike. For every Schindler’s List there’s a Bonfire of the Vanities. Some are critically bulletproof, such as the Harry Potter series; despite the turgid nature of the first two movies featuring the bespectacled wizard, they were huge box office successes and paved the way for the remaining instalments (which, effectively, meant they were commercially bulletproof as well). Most fall somewhere in-between, neither success nor failure but an often strange combination of the two e.g. The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones or Smilla’s Sense of Snow, one moment distilling the essence of the original novel, the next demolishing that moment with an ill-judged sequence or change from the source material. Others simply die on the screen (the aforementioned Bonfire of the Vanities, The Osterman Weekend, the Jack Black version of Gulliver’s Travels).

Most try to be faithful to the novel they’re adapting but sometimes this is the very thing that stops the movie from being a success: by cleaving to the set-up, the characters and the events depicted in the novel, the movie somehow misses the spark that made the book a must-read. Instead of a must-see movie, audiences are presented with an adaptation that keeps the essential components but fails to breathe cinematic life into them.

And so it is with The Book Thief. Adapted from the novel by Markus Zusak, The Book Thief in question is Liesel Meminger (Nelisse), a young girl who is given up for adoption by her mother (who may or may not be a communist) during the Second World War. She is taken in by the Hubermanns, Hans (Rush) and Rosa (Watson). Hans is a gentle, encouraging man who teaches Liesel how to read; from this Liesel develops her love of books. Rosa is stern and constantly criticising Liesel’s behaviour (though you know she has a soft spot for her, however horrid she might be). As time goes by and Liesel settles in to life with her new Mama and Papa, the war that seems to be going on in a separate part of Germany altogether, begins to encroach on their daily lives.

One day a young Jewish man called Max Vandenburg (Schnetzer) comes to their house. On the run from the Nazis, he is hurt and needs a place to hide. Owing a debt to his father, the Hubermanns at first hide him in Liesel’s room, then transfer him to the basement. There is an anxious occasion when a Nazi officer visits them and asks to see the basement but he goes away pretty quickly and has no idea that Max is there (and it turns out he’s not even looking for him). Helped back to nearly full health by Rosa’s administrations and Liesel’s reading to him (through books stolen from the burgermeister’s library), Max leaves before he can put them in greater danger. Then Hans is conscripted, despite his age. With the war getting nearer and nearer, Liesel’s future looks increasingly uncertain.

The Book Thief is a curiously flat, dramatically sterile movie that sticks to the same pace from its strikingly photographed opening to its let’s-try-and-be-upbeat-even-though-the-ending’s-a-downer conclusion. There’s very little Drama here, very little of what the Germans refer to as sturm und drang (“storm and drive”). Michael Petroni’s adaptation is as dull and uneventful as a trip to a colour chart museum. There’s the visit by the Nazi officer, which should have the viewer on the edge of their seat, but as there’s so little invested in Max’s character, it doesn’t come across as a tense moment at all; it would have been more dramatic by this point if he had been discovered. The only other source of “trouble” that Liesel faces is from school bully and Nazi Youth member Franz Deutscher (Liam), and all he does is make empty threats about “reporting” her (and literally does no more than that). With such an absence of tension throughout, The Book Thief – while remaining true to its source – ends up being a collection of scenes that relate to each other but do little to involve the viewer at any particular point.

As a result, Rush and Watson have to fall back on their expertise to raise their characters from the level of caricatures or cardboard cut-outs, while newcomer Nelisse actually manages to impress even though she has as little to work with as her more experienced co-stars. Percival’s direction does nothing to improve things and is workmanlike at best, though the production – on a technical level – makes up for the emotional detachment, and is often lovely to look at. And there should be one final word for the narrator. Step forward, Death, as voiced by Roger Allam. If there is any further proof required that The Book Thief doesn’t work as well as it should, then take a listen to the dreadful dialogue Allam has to give voice to. If you’re not cringing after the first few sentences (right at the start of the movie) then you’ll probably enjoy The Book Thief a lot more than most.

Rating: 5/10 – dull as the proverbial ditchwater, and spoilt by a lack of engagement from its director and its writer; saved by the professionalism of its cast and crew, but a major disappointment nevertheless.

The Hot Flashes (2013)

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Hot Flashes, The

D: Susan Seidelman / 99m

Cast: Brooke Shields, Daryl Hannah, Virginia Madsen, Camryn Manheim, Wanda Sykes, Eric Roberts, Mark Povinelli, Andrea Frankle, Jessica Rothe, Charlotte Graham, Carl Palmer, Kenny Alfonso, Heidi Hite

When the mobile mammogram service she helped start up is facing closure because of an administration oversight that’s also her fault, Beth Humphrey (Shields) decides she has to do something about it.  But with the service needing $25,000 to keep running, what exactly can she do?  The answer: contact some of her old high school basketball team and persuade them to take on that year’s high school state championship team in a best of three competition with any winnings they get from side betting to be used to keep the mammogram service going.

Of course, getting the old team back together isn’t without its ups and downs, and – on Beth’s part – a fair bit of lying about the commitment of each team member.  First there’s car dealer Ginger (Hannah), who isn’t sure Beth will be able to get everyone back together but is willing to take part.  Then there’s biker chick Roxie (Manheim), who thinks she’s too out of shape and won’t take part if a certain team member is involved.  That certain team member is repeat bride Clementine (Madsen), who had a fling with Roxie’s boyfriend back in the day; she doesn’t want to take part either.  And then there’s the current mayor, Florine (Sykes), who tells Beth she’s far too busy with her campaign for re-election.  Despite their objections, Beth tells each of them when the first practice session is, and – surprise, surprise – all four turn up. 

All five women still have some moves, and while fitness is an issue, the will to take on the current state champions, even though they’re around twenty-five to thirty years younger, helps them realise just how mundane their lives have become.  Beth’s marriage to Laurence (Roberts) has lost its passion, as has Roxie’s relationship with husband Tito (Alfonso).  Ginger is apparently single but constantly refers to her roommate, Jewel (Hite) in ways that make the other women believe they’re a couple.  Clementine is “between husbands”; being back on the team helps with her self-esteem and getting back at the state champions’ coach (Palmer), who’s also one of her exes.  And Florine learns to loosen up and not focus so much on her political career.  All five women begin to take better control of their lives and as their game improves, their friendships create an unbreakable bond between them.

The Hot Flashes – the name the women give themselves as a team name – have to overcome a variety of obstacles to get all three games played, and it will come as no surprise that everything hinges on their winning the third and final game.  With Beth being tested most of all off the court – Laurence may be having an affair, her daughter Jocelyn (Graham) is on the champions’ team - it’s up to the rest of the women to help her pull through, and together save the mammogram service and show that middle-aged women can still be as competitive and determined as their younger counterparts.

This may not come as a surprise, but The Hot Flashes is another exercise in female empowerment slash wish fulfillment.  Unfortunately, it’s only mildly entertaining and while the cast do their best with some of the broadest female characterisations to be seen for a while, the movie fails to bring anything new to the genre, and only sporadically attains its own aspirations.  The women put aside their differences with speed and ease – even Roxie and Clementine bury the hatchet without their mutual enmity causing too much of a problem – and form the kind of sisterly bond that will see them remain friends for the rest of their lives (strange, though, how it wasn’t there when they were younger).  The problems they encounter are often superficial and/or banal, and add little depth or drama as the story unfolds.  There’s a bit of an old/young divide as well, with Jocelyn’s friend and teammate Kayla (Frankle) making ageist remarks at every turn, as if the women need a further spur toward achieving their goal.  And the male characters… well, let’s just say that in terms of gender equality, Brad Hennig’s script has no problem in showing them all to be self-centred, egotistical and unsupportive. 

Distinct sexism aside, The Hot Flashes tries hard to be about team effort and team spirit conquering all, but even that aesthetic wears thin pretty quickly.  Which is a shame as the movie has a great cast and Susan Seidelman’s direction takes full advantage of the ladies’ experience and acting skills, despite being in service to a script that doesn’t give them half as much to do as it needs to.  Shields, who tends to do more TV work than film, takes centre stage and does well as the beleaguered Beth, while Madsen and Manheim squeeze more out of their roles than expected.  Hannah appears awkward, and Sykes is reduced to an occasional wisecrack or two, but even held back as they are, both actresses acquit themselves well considering the material.  As for the game sequences, all five women show an aptitude for basketball that will probably surprise most viewers, and the final game delivers a degree of otherwise unexpected tension (even if the outcome is never in doubt). 

Rating: 5/10 – occasionally amusing but too patchy to work properly, The Hot Flashes (almost) wastes the talents of its cast; an unassuming diversion that works best on the court rather than off it.

Mini-Review: Kill Your Darlings (2013)

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Kill Your Darlings

D: John Krokidas / 104m

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall, Jack Huston, Ben Foster, David Cross, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Elizabeth Olsen, John Cullum, David Rasche

Covering the years 1943-45 while fledgling poet Allen Ginsberg (Radcliffe) was at Columbia University, Kill Your Darlings – a reference to William Faulkner – charts the growing infatuation between Ginsberg and fellow student Lucien Carr (Chronicle‘s DeHaan), their relationships with William Burroughs (Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Huston), and eventually, their roles in the murder of Dr David Kemmerer (Hall).

This is a slow burn movie, where the script strives to paint the characters as boldly as possible and with as much honesty as possible. Carr is shown as manipulative, pretentious and ultimately callow, while Ginsberg comes across as incredibly naive. As played by Radcliffe, Ginsberg is all grinning confusion and slow-on-the-uptake reactions. Unfortunately, this means that neither of them are particularly likeable (though Ginsberg edges it); as a result the movie suffers because it’s difficult to root for any of them, and when the details of the murder are revealed, any sympathies built up during the movie are swept away in a moment (though maybe that was the filmmakers’ intention).

Like a lot of so-called “free thinkers” with plans to change the world, they’re more adept at ruining the world they live in than creating a new one. When it becomes clear that they’re no better than the system they despise, the movie starts to falter and first-timer Krokidas loses his previously sure grip on proceedings. Of the cast, Radcliffe and DeHaan acquit themselves well, while Foster exudes an icy menace as Burroughs. Hall, though, is miscast, and struggles as the doomed Kammerer. That said, Krokidas makes good use of a great cast, and allowing for the odd stumble, shows a great deal of promise. The 40′s recreation is done well, and Reed Morano’s cinematography recalls other movies from the same period. An interesting story, then, and well-mounted but it’s difficult to tell an interesting story when the main characters are so hollow inside.

Rating: 7/10 – a minor slice of history given a fair-minded treatment that doesn’t quite achieve its aims; absorbing though and another good performance from Radcliffe.

Group Review: Shed No Tears (1948) / Child Bride (1938) / Detective Kitty O’Day (1944)

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NOTE: All three movies were viewed courtesy of http://www.archive.org – go check it out!

Shed No Tears (1948)

Shed No Tears

D: Jean Yarbrough / 70m

Cast: Wallace Ford, June Vincent, Mark Roberts, Johnstone White, Frank Albertson, Dick Hogan, Elena Verdugo

Spirited noir with a constantly twisting, changing plot to keep its audience guessing (although the eventual outcome is never in doubt – it’s the Forties after all, and bad people still need to be punished).  After faking his death with the help of his wife Edna (Vincent), Sam Grover (Ford) hides out until Edna can collect on the insurance money.  What Sam doesn’t know is that Edna has no intention of sharing the money with him, and has her own plans involving her lover, Ray (Roberts).  Meanwhile, Sam’s son Tom (Hogan), unconvinced that his father’s “death” was accidental, hires a private detective (White) to look into the matter.  What follows is an entertaining yarn full of double crosses, unexpected twists and turns, and hard-boiled dialogue (mostly uttered by Vincent).  The cast are proficient – though some of Vincent’s line readings are memorable for all the wrong reasons – and Yarbrough’s direction shows a sure hand.  Not as slick or as impressive as some other post-war noirs but worth catching nevertheless.

Rating: 6/10 – a minor gem that works well when focusing on its lead characters’ greed; Vincent looks completely untrustworthy throughout.

Child Bride (1938)

Child Bride

D: Harry Revier / 62m

Cast: Shirley Mills, Bob Bollinger, Warner Richmond, Diana Durrell, Dorothy Carrol, George Humphreys, Frank Martin

Exploitation curio that mixes child marriage reform with more traditional soap opera elements.  Jennie (Mills) is twelve.  She’s a bright, precocious child who lives with her mother (Carrol) and father (Humphreys) in the Ozarks.  The community there sees nothing wrong with children Jennie’s age being married because, as one character puts it, “there ain’t enough adult women to go round”.  The local school teacher, Miss Carol (Durrell) is fighting to have the law changed but it’s an uphill struggle.  Meanwhile, Jennie’s father falls foul of his partner in an illegal still, Jake Bolby (Richmond).  Events play out so that Jennie ends up betrothed to Bolby.  Will she be saved in the nick of time?  Child Bride moves along at a rapid pace and crams a lot into its short running time.  Revier directs ably enough but the cast vary from just about credible (Richmond) to downright terrible (Durrell and Martin).  There’s an extended sequence where Jennie goes skinny-dipping and it’s clear that Mills is naked, and an even more risible sequence where Miss Carol is abducted at night by hooded men.

Rating: 4/10 – engrossing in its way, Child Bride ends up being a little too melodramatic for its own good; it’s also dated badly but the presentation of its central theme still has the ability to make modern audiences uncomfortable.

Detective Kitty O’Day (1944)

Detective Kitty O'Day

D: William Beaudine / 61m

Cast: Jean Parker, Peter Cookson, Tim Ryan, Veda Ann Borg, Edward Gargan, Douglas Fowley, Herbert Heyes, Pat Gleason

Fast-paced comedy whodunnit featuring Parker as Kitty O’Day, who, when her boss is murdered, decides to find the killer – against the best advice of her boyfriend Johnny (Cookson) and the police (Ryan, Gargan).  But everywhere she turns, more dead bodies pop up and soon Kitty and Johnny become the number one suspects.  Parker and Cookson make for a good team, and if their banter seems a little forced at times, it doesn’t detract from the obvious chemistry they have together.  The storyline dips in and out of being plausible, and the final explanation is unnecessarily convoluted, but otherwise this is an enjoyable romp that relies largely on short, punchy scenes to make up its running time.  Beaudine – who could make this kind of movie in his sleep – keeps it light and frothy, and the cast fill their roles with ease, especially Ryan and Gargan who steal the show as the by turns exasperated and clueless cops on the case.  Not a classic – and neither is the sequel, Adventures of Kitty O’Day (1945) – but it’s a fun way to pass an hour.

Rating: 5/10 – tries to be rip-roaring but gets bogged down in its own plot; light and breezy throughout with few variations to compensate for all the frivolity.

Mini-Review: Captain Phillips (2013)

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Captain Phillips

D: Paul Greengrass / 134m

Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Catherine Keener, David Warshofsky, Corey Johnson, Chris Mulkey

Based on the attempted hijacking of the freighter ship Maersk Alabama in 2009 by Somali pirates, Captain Phillips is a heart-stopping, adrenaline-charged powerhouse of a movie that grabs hold of its audience from the moment two ominous blips are seen on the Alabama’s radar screen, and doesn’t let go until nearly two hours later. The first time the Somalis attack they are unsuccessful, but the ship’s crew know they’ll be back; it’s just a question of how long. When they do, and they manage to board the ship, so begins a game of cat and mouse between the titular Captain Phillips (Hanks) and the Somali leader Muse (Abdi), a game that escalates when Phillips, Muse and Muse’s three compatriots, end up in the Alabama’s lifeboat heading for Somalia. The navy is called in – will they be able to rescue Phillips unscathed, or will the Somalis reach their home shores instead?

The answer to both questions is not exactly, and maybe. This is high drama played out at such a pitch that it keeps the audience on the edge of its seat not daring to breathe. Through each twist and turn of the narrative, Greengrass keeps a tight hold on proceedings, ratcheting up the tension until it’s almost unbearable. He’s aided immeasurably by incredible performances by Hanks and Abdi, both equally mesmerising, and both deserving of every accolade they receive. Hanks’ final scene is incredible to watch, a wrenching, pitiless depiction of a man who has gone through so much he’s fighting to remain on top of things and not succeeding; while Abdi convinces as a Somali fisherman who is complex and threatening and naive and proud all at the same time. Of course, all this is down to Billy Ray’s incredible script, by turns thrilling, emotional, nerve-wracking and detailed. The photography by Barry Ackroyd and editing by Christopher Rouse are superb, but this is Greengrass’s towering achievement: his best film yet and easily the most kinetic, charged movie of 2013 – never has the word “execute” been the trigger for an audience to be able to release so much pent-up emotion.

Rating: 9/10 – my movie of the year for 2013 and easily the most exciting thriller of recent years; a powerful experience that lingers long in the memory.

Non-Stop (2014)

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Non-Stop

D: Jaume Collet-Serra / 106m

Cast: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Michelle Dockery, Nate Parker, Corey Stoll, Lupita Nyong’o, Omar Metwally, Jason Butler Harner, Linus Roache, Shea Whigham, Anson Mount

Non-Stop – or the continuing adventures of Liam Neeson in action movie land – starts off promisingly enough with air marshal Bill Marks (Neeson) preparing to board a flight to London from New York.  He looks a mess, he’s drinking, he’s obviously got problems, and he has a gun.  Once the flight is underway, Marks begins to get text messages over the air marshal network, which should be secure.  If the mystery person sending the texts isn’t paid $150 million dollars then someone on the plane will die every twenty minutes until it is.  Marks thinks it’s probably some kind of elaborate practical joke, and challenges the other air marshal on the plane, Hammond (Mount) about it, but it’s soon made clear Hammond didn’t send the messages.  He alerts the captain and the cabin staff as a precaution, and also his boss at the Transport Security Administration (TSA).  Only Marks takes the threat seriously.  As the first twenty minute marker nears, Marks finds himself attacked by Hammond (who, it turns out, is being coerced by the texter) and is forced to kill him, thereby doing the texter’s work for him.  Marks also discovers that Hammond was carrying a briefcase full of cocaine.

With Marks attempting to keep Hammond’s death from the crew and passengers – and no one making any attempt to use the toilet Hammond’s body is in – the plot thickens as it’s revealed that the account the texter wants the money transferred into is in Marks’ name.  With suspicion mounting against him, Marks attempts to discover the texter’s identity by checking the passengers’ cell phones.  Some of the passengers take umbrage at this, particularly NY cop Reilly (Stoll), and communications tech White (Parker).  When another murder takes place after forty minutes, Marks’ behaviour becomes increasingly more desperate as he attempts to locate the texter, alienating both the crew and passengers further, and as events unfold, putting himself in the frame for what is now being seen by the outside world as a hijacking.  Even the TSA believe he’s gone bad.  And when he discovers there’s a bomb on the plane, Marks must do all he can to save the plane and himself.

A movie like Non-Stop can be taken (no pun intended), in one of two ways: as a leave-your-brain-at-the-door-and-go-with-it type of movie that could end up being a fun ride, or as yet another dire attempt by Hollywood to provide thrills and spills but without any kind of focus on logic or credibility – still a fun ride perhaps, but one that coasts on its high concept and promise of seeing Neeson doing what he (currently) does best: kick ass.  In either circumstance, though, Non-Stop is a let-down, a polished yet soulless piece of work that is, seriously, a real piece of work.

The fault here lies squarely with the script by John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach and Ryan Engle, which piles on absurdity after absurdity and never lets you forget that credibility isn’t an issue.  As Marks gets ever more desperate to discover the texter’s identity, and he violates the passengers’ rights with ever-increasing enthusiasm, the script never pauses to wonder if there might be any actual protocols involved in dealing with such an admittedly unusual situation.  When Marks tells everyone about the bomb and a “damage limitation” procedure, you’re not sure if the script has made it up or it does exist in the real world.  Two fighters are scrambled to fly alongside the airliner and with instructions to shoot down the plane if it drops to 8,000 feet or below because then it becomes a civilian threat.  But the plane is flying over the Atlantic and is being directed to land in Iceland, not exactly the most populous of locations.  Two of the victims are killed by poison dart; neither could have happened in the way they do and the script doesn’t even challenge itself to come up with anything more clever; it settles far too often for a “well, this happens, and then this happens, and it just does” kind of approach.

When the texter’s identity and his or her reasons for doing all this are revealed, it’s such a weak excuse the viewer can only shake their head in dismay and move on to the rapidly approaching finale.  It’s also a pretty woolly excuse, and delivered with all the earnestness and conviction of someone trying to explain why they’ve just done something so stupid they’re terminally embarrassed about it (like signing on to be the villain in Non-Stop).

As the script is so poor, and character motivations almost on the nearly extinct list, the cast fare badly, unable to do anything other than say the lines and hit their marks.  Neeson tries valiantly to make his role work but he’s hampered by having to be a hero when it would have been so much more effective if there had been some real doubt as to his involvement in the hijacking.  Moore is on hand to provide support as the passenger who never doubts Marks for a moment, while McNairy, Stoll, Parker, Metwally and others are trotted out as potential hijackers as the guessing game continues.  Dockery, escaping from Downton Abbey (and maybe changing agents at this very moment) is only required to look shocked and surprised at various moments, while Nyong’o, after her triumph in 12 Years a Slave, is saddled with the role of stewardess-most-required-to-scream-and-panic-a-lot.

Collet-Serra directs with ambition and a certain flair, keeping the visual side of things interesting, and making good use of the cramped conditions.  However, even he can’t make much of the dire script, and as a result, the cast suffer even further, some, like Dockery, seemingly cast adrift.  The action sequences are casually brutal yet effective, though the crash landing at the end won’t be the best use of CGI seen this year.  If there is to be a Non-Stop 2 – and we can only pray there won’t be – it will have to be a great deal better than this to warrant a return flight.

Rating: 5/10 – as a popcorn movie, Non-Stop just about makes it, but with serious reservations; laughable in places, frustrating to watch, and just too dumb for its own good.

Cuban Fury (2014)

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Cuban FuryD: James Griffiths / 98m

Cast: Nick Frost, Rashida Jones, Chris O’Dowd, Olivia Colman, Ian McShane, Kayvan Novak, Alexandra Roach, Rory Kinnear, Tim Plester, Ben Radcliffe

As a teenager, Bruce Garrett (Frost) is a salsa prodigy, winning with his sister, Sam (Colman) trophy after trophy, and heading for the top.  On his way to a major competition, Bruce is ambushed by three bullies who make fun of his sequinned outfit and assault him; ashamed and embarrassed by what has happened, Bruce turns his back on salsa and vows never to dance again.

Twenty-two years on, and Bruce is out-of-shape, without a girlfriend, and working for a tool-making company (though he does “love the lathe”).  When the company gains a new, American boss, Julia (Jones), Bruce finds himself attracted to her, and while they enjoy a good working relationship, Bruce convinces himself that nothing romantic will happen between them.  But when would-be Lothario and colleague, Drew (O”Dowd) begins to express a less than healthy interest in Julia, and prompted by the knowledge that Julia salsa dances as well, Bruce decides to renew his love for dance in the hope of winning Julia’s heart.

Renewing his love for dance, however, means getting back in touch with his old mentor, Ron Parfitt (McShane).  Ron isn’t too pleased to see Bruce, and makes him join his beginners class.  As Bruce comes to realise just how rusty he is, and how much salsa has moved on since he competed, he begins to regain his confidence.  When a dance competition is announced, Bruce trains even harder with the intention of asking Julia to be his partner.  But Drew is determined to bed her and engineers a situation that gives Bruce the impression he’s done so.  Will Bruce learn the truth before it’s too late?  Will Drew get his comeuppance?  And will Julia make it to the dancehall in time to partner Bruce in the final round?

Based on an original idea by Nick Frost, Cuban Fury is a romantic comedy that charms its way into the viewer’s heart thanks to a combination of winning performances, a neat line in physical comedy, and well-choreographed dance sequences.  The movie wears its heart on its sleeve from the outset, showing the enjoyment the younger Bruce (Radcliffe) derives from dancing before it turns necessarily darker when Bruce is subject to the bullies’ attack.  Frost shows the same love and enjoyment in his dance sequences, displaying an agility and aptitude that, on paper at least, should be surprising, but in reality are entirely believable (though the acrobatics employed in the dance-off against Drew undermine Frost’s efforts in the rest of the movie).  O’Dowd has some good moves as well (though he’s more of an improviser than a formal dancer), but Jones only gets to strut her stuff in a couple of much shorter sequences.  Even so, their willingness to perform – with only a few shots the work of dance doubles – helps ground the movie so that the dance routines don’t stray too far from what you’d expect of the characters.

Away from the dance floor, Frost convinces as the hapless, ordinary man who no longer expects much from his life; it’s not exactly a stretch for Frost but he’s a likeable screen presence and adds layers to the character of Bruce that might not otherwise have been included.  O’Dowd excels as the ultra-sleazy Drew, the kind of man a woman would bite her own foot off to avoid, as clueless about the fairer sex as he is about gender equality and what constitutes inappropriate behaviour.  As the object of both men’s attentions, Jones has the lesser role and less opportunity to shine (though this misfortune can be laid firmly at the door of Jon Brown’s screenplay), while as Sam, Colman impresses as Bruce’s freewheeling sister, providing many of the movie’s prime laughs.  So too does Novak as Bejan, one of the learners in Ron’s class who befriends Bruce and helps him regain his confidence; with one-liners such as “I’m late for my ball waxing” it’s hardly surprising.  It’s left to McShane to provide the gravitas, scowling at Bruce and pushing him to work harder in order to succeed.  (There’s also a priceless cameo from one of Frost’s Cornetto Trilogy castmates.)

Behind the camera, Griffiths provides efficient if unfussy direction, saving the big camera moves for the infectious dance sequences, and using low camera angles to good effect.  The editing by Jonathan Amos, and the music choices (overseen by Nick Angel) combine to make these sections enthralling and enticing in equal measure (if you’re not tapping your toes there’s something wrong with you – peripheral neuropathy perhaps?).

Overall, Cuban Fury is an enjoyable variation on the boy-meets-girl, boy-deems-himself-not-worthy, boy-redeems-himself-and-wins-the-girl-through-accepting-hidden-talent tale of romantic woes and tribulations.  In reality there’s nothing entirely new here but it’s done with a lightness of touch that helps captivate the viewer and keeps them smiling all the way through.  And if there’s a sequel, let’s hope it’s called Cuban Fury 2: Heels of Steel.

Rating: 8/10 – funny, heart-warming and brimming with charm, Cuban Fury entertains throughout its running time; kudos to Frost for bringing his idea to life, and with such hip-swinging verve.

Evidence (2011)

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Evidence

D: Howie Askins / 78m

Cast: Abigail Richie, Ashley Bracken, Ryan McCoy, Brett Rosenberg

Yet another entry in the found-footage sub-genre of horror movies, Evidence is a low-budget exercise in misdirection that pulls the rug out from under its audience at the midway mark.  Ryan (McCoy, also the movie’s writer) is making a documentary about his friend Brett (Rosenberg) going on his first camping trip.  It’s a fairly inane reason for making a documentary and for the first twenty minutes or so it’s taken up with Brett voicing his dislike of being filmed, and Ryan being pretentious.  Along for the trip are their respective girlfriends, Ashley (Bracken) and Abigail (Richie).  On the first night they hear a noise that Ryan dismisses as a coyote.  The next day they see a strange creature in a nearby ravine.  That night the noise escalates, and stranger things begin to happen.

By this stage, Evidence is shaping up to be a Bigfoot-style movie.  And if it had continued in that vein the movie might have been less effective than it actually turns out.  And while the twist that happens after that second night takes the movie into a more nightmarish arena, there’s still something about the direction it takes that makes you want to find out if the filmmakers could have pulled off a more focused creature feature.  The creature itself is well-realised and mirrors the creature effects in Attack the Block (2011).  Once the twist is revealed, the movie does little but offer its two female leads running around and screaming a lot, while being chased.  For a while it even takes us into first-person-shooter territory with an approach that wouldn’t look out-of-place in a Resident: Evil game.  The filmmakers have strived to provide the audience with something different from the usual found-footage movies out there, and while they certainly succeed – two shots are as disturbing as anything seen in modern horror – the repetition that goes along with the change in direction undercuts the tension.

Director Askins (Devil Girl (2007), several shorts) moves the story along at a brisk pace suited to the running time, and McCoy’s script sticks closely to formula in that whatever is “out there” is shown fleetingly (until the end), and that whenever one of the characters is attacked, the camera is conveniently on the ground or out of focus.  (At least, on this occasion, there is a good reason for the characters to keep filming: most of the time it’s night and the light from the camera let’s them see what they’re doing and where they’re going.)

Richie and Bracken give good performances, even if some of their dialogue early on seems forced, but as mentioned before, once the twist kicks in they have little to do but run and scream a lot.  Rosenberg seems uncomfortable throughout, while McCoy is unafraid to play the jerk, and while other characters do appear, they’re not around for long.

Evidence does suffer at times from ploughing the same furrow as other found-footage movies, but its willingness to try something different is to its credit.  While it’s not entirely successful, and some elements appear lifted from other horror sub-genres, it’s nevertheless worth seeing.  One word of warning though: be prepared for maximum frustration in the last ten minutes as the filmmakers take video and audio fragmentation to its most annoying level ever.

Rating: 6/10 – for once, you won’t see what’s coming, and when you do you’ll find it’s more disturbing than you could have expected; uneven, it’s true, but still more of an achievement than a failure.

Originally posted on thedullwoodexperiment website.

Cold Weather (2010)

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Cold Weather

D: Aaron Katz / 96m

Cast: Cris Lankenau, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Raúl Castillo, Robyn Rikoon, Jeb Pearson, Brendan McFadden

Doug (Lankenau) is a twenty-something slacker with a background in forensic science but no motivation to make a career from it.  When Cold Weather begins he’s without a job, without a girlfriend, and reduced to sleeping on his sister’s couch.  He’s a classic underachiever.  Eventually he gets a job working nights at an ice factory where he meets Carlos (Castillo).  They become friends, and the usually aimless Doug begins to come out of his shell, admitting his love of Sherlock Holmes and his dream to become a detective some day, like the sleuth of 221b Baker Street (also, throughout the movie Doug carries a copy of E.W. Hornung’s Raffles around with him).  When Doug’s ex-girlfriend, Rachel (Rikoon) appears on the scene her subsequent disappearance leads Doug, aided and pushed in equal measure by his sister, Gail (Dunn) and Carlos, into using his nascent detective skills to find her.

Cold Weather is a curious movie.  It mixes modern film noir with a slacker aesthetic and adopts a slow-burn pace in an effort to heighten the drama and the mystery of Rachel’s disappearance.  However, the mix fails to gel, and the viewer is left waiting for the movie to pull itself together.  When Doug and Carlos are in Rachel’s motel room looking for clues – a scene normally ripe for increased tension – there’s some rudimentary checking of drawers and the bathroom before Doug notices something in the parking lot.  Instead of this being a sudden revelation geared to reinforcing the audience’s attention, it falls flat due to a) Lankenau’s reading of the line (it’s not his fault, to be fair, it’s how the character has been written by Katz), and b) the static camerawork that leaves Carlos’ reaction almost offscreen.

There’s a fair degree of intelligence at work here but it’s undermined by the decision to pace the movie so glacially, and by having its central character be so socially awkward and unable to engage with others.  When we meet Rachel it’s hard to understand what she might have seen in Doug; plus it’s already obvious that the only female relationship that Doug is comfortable with is with Gail, and she is often more of a mother to him than a sister.  As the movie struggles on to its annoyingly abrupt ending, Doug does become less and less insular but only registers any real emotion when delighting in some minor vandalism.  What becomes clear is that without the involvement of Carlos and Gail, Doug would never have looked into Rachel’s disappearance at all.  With this in mind, the movie now feels contrived, and Doug given no motivation to act unless his friend and sister bully him into it.

Against this, there’s also the aforementioned glacial pacing.  Katz directs at a snail’s pace, dragging out shots and scenes for no other purpose (it seems) than to extend what would otherwise be a pretty short movie.  One sequence, where Gail and Doug are driving up to the top of a multi-storey car park, is filmed from the backseat and contains no dialogue as they ascend.  The view through the windscreen is over-exposed, so there’s no detail… and the whole sequence serves no valid purpose.  There are other, similar moments and while slow-paced movies can be rewarding in their own right, they still have to be engaging and astute in the assembly of the material.

Fortunately the performances are good, with Lankenau – who also appeared in Katz’s Quiet City (2007) – effective as the bordering-on-Asperger’s Doug, while Dunn quietly outshines everyone with her take on a sister who seems to have willingly put her life on hold to look after her brother.  Castillo and Rikoon provide solid support and the suitably wintry location photography – all steely greys and blues – is lensed by Andrew Reed to great effect.  And while Katz’s screenplay is packed with unnecessary longueurs, there is still enough of merit to warrant looking out for his other works (he just needs to sack his current editor – himself).

Rating: 5/10 – it drags badly in places but Cold Weather has a quirky feel to it that helps it through; there’s a deeper meaning here too but it all depends on whether or not the viewer is interested enough to dig for it.

Originally posted on thedullwoodexperiment website.

Blood Car (2007)

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Blood Car

D: Alex Orr / 76m

Cast: Mike Brune, Anna Chlumsky, Katie Rowlett, Matt Hutchinson, Marla Malcolm, Mr. Malt, Matthew Stanton, Hawmi Guillebeaux, Bill Szymanski, Vince Canlas

With an introduction to camera that tells the viewer that the movie is set in the near future – “a couple of weeks from now” – Blood Car begins with elementary school teacher Archie (Brune) telling his class the story of the Little Engine That Could.  It’s a neat foreshadowing of the movie to come and a great offset to the carnage in store for the viewer.

In the future, gas prices in America have hit record levels, around $30 a gallon.  Having a car that runs is a rich man’s game, but Archie isn’t rich.  He does have a car though, and a plan to run it using wheatgrass.  But his plan isn’t working, the wheatgrass will only let the car run for a minute or two, and he’s close to giving up when he stumbles on the real fuel he needs to keep his car running.  There’s no prizes for guessing it’s blood (this isn’t called Wheatgrass Car, after all), but therein lies a problem: Archie is a vegan; how will he be able to find enough blood to keep his car running?

The answer is: quite easily.  After some attempts at despatching the local wildlife, Archie graduates to larger animals i.e. dogs, but they’re simply not large enough to provide sufficient blood.  When his neighbour, Mrs Butterfield (Barbara Carnes) passes away unexpectedly, it’s just a short drop from her veranda to the back of Archie’s car where he’s developed a contraption that is basically part blender and part engine.  From then on, finding “donors” is only the first of Archie’s mounting problems.

Problem number one is Denise (Rowlett).  She’s interested in Archie because of his car and is willing to let him sleep with her if he drives her around; their relationship becomes dependent on Archie finding enough blood for his car.  Problem number two is Lorraine (My Girl‘s Chlumsky), who is attracted to Archie but begins to have suspicions about his car when he stops buying wheatgrass from her.  Problem number three is the government: agents are sent to steal the car for the government’s own purposes and Archie has to fend them off almost continuously.  And problem number four is Archie’s deteriorating mental stability; after all, how can someone kill so many people and not have it affect them?

Adopting a grind house approach, Blood Car is a very black comedy and some aspects will doubtless offend people – Archie’s shooting at a dog tied to a stake; one of Archie’s pupils being shot in the head at point blank range; the final “throwaway” shot involving a baby – but the movie is very funny and if the humour is a little bit offensive in places then it’s balanced by moments where the script (by Orr and Adam Pinney) displays some fine touches – the predatory Denise letting Archie see her vulnerable side by inviting him back to her place; Archie having sex with Lorraine but clearly not enjoying the experience; Archie being carjacked and then debating the finer points of gas consumption with the carjacker (Mr. Melt); and the answer to the age-old question: how far will you get when the disabled war veteran you feed to your car has plastic legs and a plastic arm?  (The answer is: not far.)

The script, however, does falter at times.  Lorraine is underused, and once she and Archie sleep together, the script doesn’t know what to do with her.  The government agents are presented as either stupid or psychotic, or both, and the eventual meeting between Archie and Agent Watkins (Hutchinson) reads like the conspiracy theories of a confused pot smoker.  The editing is also clumsy at times, leaving the viewer wondering if what they’re seeing is happening in the right order (it’s a weird effect but that’s the best way to describe it).  There’s an initial over-reliance on public domain classical music on the soundtrack, and the movie itself ends rather abruptly.

Further on the plus side, the general tone of the movie is feverish and this suits the subject matter perfectly, while the performances are likeable with Brune well cast in particular.  There’s very little gore despite the killing method, but there is the requisite number of bare breasts on display throughout (watch out as well for the fantasy art that Lorraine has drawn of her and Archie).  Orr, making his feature debut, shows a sure hand and keeps things moving along at a good pace while allowing his principal cast plenty of room to flesh out their characters.  The satire is cleverly worked into the proceedings and the various messages surrounding society’s approach to consumption and waste are presented organically and without resorting to tub-thumping.

NOTE: When Archie and Denise are at the drive-in, the movie they’re watching is Stomp! Shout! Scream! (2005).  Alex Orr appears in that movie as Deputy Frank.

Rating: 7/10 – hugely enjoyable satirical horror with a bit of a soft heart amidst the carnage; well worth tracking down despite (or maybe because of) its low-budget limitations.

Originally posted on thedullwoodexperiment website.

Mini-Review: The Fifth Estate (2013)

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Fifth Estate, The

D: Bill Condon / 128m

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Anthony Mackie, Laura Linney, David Thewlis, Alicia Vikander, Peter Capaldi, Moritz Bleibtreu, Carice van Houten, Jamie Blackley, Stanley Tucci

Remarkably similar in tone and circumstance to the creation of Facebook as shown in David Fincher’s The Social Network, The Fifth Estate shows how WikiLeaks became such a global phenomenon.

In the beginning, Julian Assange (Cumberbatch) is shown struggling to get his site acknowledged by the wider Internet community. A fortuitous meeting with Daniel Berg (Brühl), a bored IT expert, gives Assange the help he needs in expanding and publicising WikiLeaks, and sets them on the road to international notoriety. Along the way they expose dictatorships, a tax-avoiding Swiss bank, rigged elections, and more. Then comes the tipping point: over 250,000 leaked documents relating to the US war crimes in Afghanistan, and diplomatic cables that describe the US’s real feelings about the various governments and world leaders it deals with. Assange and Berg fall out over how to disseminate the information, and the future of WikiLeaks is brought into sharp relief.

Already disowned by Assange, The Fifth Estate shows WikiLeaks’ creator to be narcissistic, arrogant, paranoid, and a user of other people. Cumberbatch plays him superbly, all grating Australian accent and sneering condescension; but how close a representation of the man it really is, is difficult to tell. Based in part on Berg’s own book, the movie skirts perilously close to demonising the man, while Berg comes out of it looking whiter than white. For a film about a man with a burning desire to show people “the truth” about the world they live in, it’s a dangerous approach to take. This is one-sided reportage, and the film ends with Cumberbatch as Assange making reference to the film itself and dismissing it; it’s an uncomfortable coda, even though Assange has made his feelings clear about the movie.

That said, the movie is a gripping retelling of recent events and holds the attention throughout. The cast are uniformly excellent, and even though the script by Josh Singer contains large chunks of exposition, it’s all presented in an easy-to-follow manner. Condon, fresh off the challenges of the final two Breaking Dawn movies, directs confidently and with a clear eye for the complexities of the material. It’s a movie that will attract controversy for some time to come, but as a jumping off point for the wider issues involved, this is where the movie really succeeds.

Rating: 8/10 – powerful, with two mesmerising lead performances, The Fifth Estate is thought-provoking, intelligent and remarkable; while it’s not as rigorous in its approach as it would like to be, it’s still a fascinating examination of a recent global phenomenon.

No Contest (1995)

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No Contest

D: Paul Lynch / 98m

Cast: Shannon Tweed, Robert Davi, Andrew Clay, Roddy Piper, Nicholas Campbell, John Colicos, James Purcell, Judith Scott, Polly Shannon, Louis Wrightman, Keram Malicki-Sanchez, J.D. Nicholsen

Seven years after Die Hard and still the rip-offs kept coming…  This time around the setting is a beauty pageant being staged in a hotel, and instead of wrong-cop-in-the-wrong-place John McClane, we have wrong-hostess-in-the-wrong-place Sharon Bell (Tweed).  As the winner is announced, arch-villain Oz (Clay) and his crew of ne’er-do-wells take over the pageant and the hotel and hold the finalists, plus Bell, as hostages.  Among the finalists is Miss U.S.A. (Shannon).  Her father, Senator Wilson (Colicos) and Oz used to be business partners until the Senator let him take the fall for a dodgy business deal gone wrong.  Now Oz is looking for some payback.

While Oz and co intimidate their hostages and try to look menacing, outside the building, Crane (Davi), Miss U.S.A.’s bodyguard, and Captain Hendricks (Purcell) plot to find a way into the hotel, rescue the hostages and thwart Oz’s evil plan.  Along the way there are the usual double crosses, action beats, less-than-credible dialogue, over-acting, lazy direction, ridiculous stunts (Davi hanging by his cane underneath a rising maintenance cart), and one climax too many.

As No Contest lurches from one absurd scene to the next, it becomes obvious that no one on the production side of things was concerned at just how absurd it all is.  And yet, the movie, despite all its faults – or maybe because of them – is one of the most enjoyable Die Hard rip-offs out there.  First, there is Shannon Tweed, taking time out from her usual role as a sexual predator in movies such as Body Chemistry 4: Full Exposure.  Now, Tweed is a beautiful woman and she has a terrific figure, but what she doesn’t have is any real talent for acting.  She never seems sure of how to play a scene, or react to what’s going on around her.  Watch her in the scene where Vic (Campbell) takes her down to the swimming pool and removes the explosive cuff she and the other hostages have been made to wear.  In a scene where her character should be scared of what’s coming next, the expression on her face relays confusion instead.  It’s almost as if she’s not sure what she’s supposed to be doing.  But with all this, the camera loves her and it’s hard to take your eyes off her whether she’s standing at a podium announcing the winner of the pageant or scrabbling through an air vent.

Second is the inspired casting of the bad guys.  Aside from Clay there’s ex-WWE wrestler Roddy Piper as psychotic sidekick Ice; the aforementioned Nicholas Campbell as vain, incompetent Vic; Louis Wrightman as trigger-happy Que; Keram Malicki-Sanchez as pony-tailed computer whiz Cal; and J.D. Nicholsen as spare wheel Zed.  All six make for a great team of villains, and each gets their own special ‘moment’ to shine, especially Malicki-Sanchez once Tweed has tied him to a pipe.

Third is just the sheer barminess of the plot.  The police initially send in just two armed officers to infiltrate the hotel; both are killed by a camera fitted out with a gun.  Oz takes control of the pageant while wearing a ill-fitting wig and moustache that he quickly discards and never wears again;  Ice survives lethal attack after lethal attack, enough to make you wonder if his real name is Michael Myers; and Crane puts having a cigarette before being a proper bodyguard to Miss U.S.A. and gets himself locked out of the hotel as a result.  It’s so bad it’s brilliant.

Lynch directs ably enough, and the fights are well-staged.  Tweed does well as an action heroine, and Clay hams it up so much you wonder if there was a porcine shortage during the movie’s making.  The film moves along at a fair pace and while it’s all very preposterous, it keeps the viewer entertained throughout.

Rating: 6/10 – Tweed proves a good focus for an action movie that is short on original ideas but is fun to watch nevertheless; a six-pack and a pizza kind of movie and just right for a zone-out Saturday night.

Originally posted on thedullwoodexperiment website.

The Lego Movie (2014)

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Lego Movie, The

D: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller / 100m

Cast: Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Cobie Smulders, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill

When evil Lord Business (Ferrell) steals the Kragle from Vitruvius (Freeman), he plans to use it to destroy all the Lego worlds, including his own, in a bid to restore order where he sees only chaos. Before he does, though, Vitruvius warns Lord Business of a prophecy, that there will come a Special, a Master Builder who will find the Piece of Resistance that will, in turn, stop the Kragle from being used as a weapon. Lord Business is scornful of this idea and forges ahead with his plans.

Some time later, with Lord Business now ensconced as President Business, we meet lowly construction worker Emmet (Pratt), a smiling nobody who feels most comfortable when following instructions. At work he tries to fit in with the other employees but it’s almost as if he’s invisible. At the end of the day he discovers a young woman, Wyldstyle (Banks), searching through the ruins of the construction site (each day’s building work gets reduced to rubble again so the crews can start afresh each day – it’s a neat acknowledgement of how Lego is used in “the real world”). She disappears, leaving Emmet to wonder what she was looking for. Falling through a hole he ends up discovering the Piece of Resistance before he’s knocked unconscious. When he wakes he’s in police custody, with the Piece of Resistance stuck to his back. Interrogated by Bad Cop (Neeson), Emmet struggles to prove his innocence. Rescued by Wyldstyle, they escape to The Old West where they meet up with Vitruvius.  Bad Cop follows them and they almost perish but for the intervention of Batman (Arnett).  Travelling on to Cloud Cuckoo Land where they meet Unikitty (Brie), Emmet, lacking the imagination of a true Master Builder, fails to impress a meeting of said same and they refuse to aid him against Lord Business.

The Master Builders are captured by Bad Cop while Emmet and some of the others manage to escape underwater.  Evading Bad Cop’s pursuit for a while, Emmet realises that the Master Builders need someone to mold them into a team, and he’s just the man for the job.  They hatch a plan to infiltrate Lord Business’s lair, rescue the Master Builders, neutralise the Kragle, and put a stop to Business’s plans once and for all.

Now that it’s here, the first thing to be said about The Lego Movie is: why the hell has it taken so long to get here?  We could have been enjoying Emmet’s adventures ages ago.  For The Lego Movie is a blast, a glorious riot of colour and sound and unfettered imagination that erupts from the screen – especially in 3D – and happy-slaps the viewer full in the face… and then does it again several times over.  There’s just so much to enjoy, it’s embarrassing.  From the establishing shot stretching out from Emmet’s apartment to the level of detail in almost every frame, The Lego Movie astonishes as often as it impresses as it entertains.  Of course, the visuals are key, the Lego worlds given a stunning amount of depth and solidity.  There’s so much going on that the movie needs a second or third viewing to catch everything that’s happening, and even then things are still likely to be missed.

With so many visual riches on display, and a dizzying array of sight gags – some daft, some ingenious and some just sublime – it would be wrong to think of the movie as just a kind of animator’s wet dream.  There is the script by co-directors Lord and Miller, a fantastic achievement that recognises the one over-riding aspect of Lego that has been a part of its appeal since its first appearance in 1949: literally, anything can happen.  Witness the changes to Bad Cop’s car when he flies off the top of the train in The Old West, or the dizzying array of adaptations and changes that happen to the vehicle Emmet and Wyldstyle escape on when fleeing the police station.  The fact that the script can fit these wild feats of imagination into its more straightforward central storyline, and still deliver on some brilliant lines of dialogue as well – Batman: “I only work in black, or sometimes very, very dark grey”; Cowboy: “Do you think zeppelins are a bad investment?”; and Bad Cop: “Darn, darn, darny darn!” – shows just how much effort has been invested in bringing The Lego Movie to completion.

The cast rise to the occasion, with Ferrell, Arnett and Freeman standing out from the crowd, supplying pitch perfect vocal performances, and there’s some great cameos – yes, that really is Anthony Daniels as C-3PO and Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian (well, come on, who else was it going to be?) – that are fun to spot as well as goofily endearing.  And look out too for Superman (Tatum) being stalked by Green Lantern (Hill), a recurring gag that could be spun out into (at least) a Lego short.  But the real, and completely unexpected vocal star, is Neeson, providing his usual gruff, tough-guy voice for Bad Cop, and alternating it when needed to a thin, whiny falsetto as Good Cop; it’s a wonderful performance and, well… who knew?

With a conclusion that veers close to being a little too sentimental – but is saved by a last-minute revelation that saves the day and sets up the sequel (due in 2017) – The Lego Movie astonishes and amazes from start to finish.  It’s not often that an animated movie, ostensibly aimed at children, is this entertaining for adults as well but Lego has been a part of so many people’s lives in the last sixty-five years that it should come as no surprise that adults will get as much out of the movie as kids will.  And it’s a rarer movie still that can cut across so many demographics and still retain its integrity.

Rating: 9/10 – a clever, impressive script married to a perfectly realised Lego environment makes The Lego Movie an early contender for Animated Movie of the Year (and an earlier than expected challenge to Mr. Peabody & Sherman for that honour); sublime, exhilarating and pretty darn perfect.

Ride Along (2014)

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Ride Along

D: Tim Story / 99m

Cast: Ice Cube, Kevin Hart, John Leguizamo, Bruce McGill, Tika Sumpter, Bryan Callen, Laurence Fishburne

There’s a moment in Ride Along where the viewer – even if they’ve only ever seen one other mismatched buddy-cop movie – has to say to themselves, “Whoa, hang on!”  The moment occurs when Ben (Hart) walks into a strip club convinced he’s dealing with a 126 (a nuisance call) and finds two guns pointed at him.  He doesn’t realise he’s in trouble and berates the two gunmen and challenges them to shoot him (he even throws in some reverse-racist taunting as well).  It’s the moment when the viewer has to throw his or her hands up in the air and say to themselves, “Okay, I know this isn’t the best mismatched buddy-cop movie in the world, but really, am I supposed to believe Ben is this dumb?”  Sadly, the answer is yes.

Ride Along is yet another dispiriting movie where the premise of two mismatched people having to work together to solve a mystery or crime is trotted out with ever decreasing results.  Ben is planning to marry Angela (Sumpter) but first has to get the approval of her brother, James (Cube).  James is a cop and thinks Ben isn’t good enough for Angela; he’s also trying to track down and apprehend a mysterious criminal called Omar (Fishburne).  Ben wants to impress James, and lets him know he’s been accepted to the police academy.  In an effort to dissuade him, James invites Ben on a ride along, a day spent with James to see if Ben has what it takes to be a police officer.

There’s no prizes for guessing that while Ben makes mistake after mistake, he still manages to stumble onto clues that help James get closer to catching Omar.  It’s a tried and tested (and trusted) formula, but here it’s so wrung out and poorly plotted that even the average viewer is going to shake their head in disappointment.  It’s the same problem that most of these movies have to overcome: just how dumb or stupid does the main character have to be, and yet still be able to credibly help resolve whatever problem, crime or investigation is at the centre of the movie.  Hart is a promising talent – he’s like a less high-pitched Chris Tucker – but as Ben he’s unable to show a through line to both parts of the character.  He plays video games and it’s this that’s supposed to help him when he and James get into a firefight; but other than being able to recognise the sounds different guns make, it’s baffling how this could be of any real benefit, yet it’s treated like a major asset (and then only as briefly as it will take to read this).  Hart also falls into the trap of thinking that if he shouts something loudly enough it will be funny (it’s not).

Cube clumps through the movie like it’s a contractual obligation, using his trademark scowl as if it’s the only piece of characterisation he needs.  He has two expressions: mad and angry, and he uses them like weapons to batter the other characters.  It’s like watching someone who’s been told he’s got a week to live and the only item on his bucket list is to be as miserable as the situation demands.

With scenes that either outstay their welcome after a couple of minutes, or fail to advance or add to the storyline, Ride Along stutters and stumbles its way from the  lacklustre, poorly edited opening action sequence to the ridiculous denouement that inevitably involves Angela being put in danger by Omar.  By that point, anyone who’s stayed the distance will be hoping Omar wins out and shoots both Ben and James so that we don’t have to endure the inevitable – and recently announced – sequel.

Further down the cast list we have John Leguizamo, an actor with such a varied range and filmography that he can be forgiven his involvement here, while Fishburne pops up to provide unconvincing menace as Omar.  In the director’s chair, Tim Story brings a journeyman’s approach to the material, failing to add anything special to proceedings and shooting in a predictable, straightforward style.  It all adds up to something that’s actually less than the sum of its parts.

Rating: 4/10 – a dire retread of an already overworked “comedy” formula, Ride Along is about as rewarding as a cold sore; derivative, embarrassing and just plain bad.

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